The Way Forward
Following a double whammy, mental health resources are essential
Traumas come in waves.
For residents of Bay and other Northwest Florida counties, Hurricane Michael came first. The Category 5 storm caused an estimated $25 billion in damage. The cost to replace Tyndall Air Force Base, alone, will exceed $5 billion.
The aftershocks of that storm were still being felt when a life-altering global pandemic arrived, setting back attempts to regain a sense of normalcy. For some in Bay County, a third wave was to come in the form of wildfires.
Even as the region has worked to restore businesses and infrastructure, individuals have struggled to regain their own mental well-being.
Michelle Hines-Bautista, a 28-year practitioner and owner of the Hormone & Wellness Center in Panama City, said she engages in a lot of therapeutic conversation with her clients. While she is not a registered counselor, she sees a lot of people who are stressed.
“Since the hurricane, we have been desperate for mental health providers,” Bautista said.
Anxiety and insomnia are prevalent among the people she sees.
“People come into the clinic who are unable to turn their fight-or-flight mode off, which is constantly pumping adrenaline into their bodies and can cause many of our hormone levels to be out of balance,” Bautista explained.
Post-traumatic stress manifests itself in people in various ways. Sleep patterns may change. People may experience a loss of appetite, become withdrawn or lose interest in their hobbies. In conversation with people who are depressed or anxious, Bautista always asks if they are in therapy.
“I know therapy can get a bad rep, but I tell people that therapists are like hairdressers; everybody needs one,” Bautista said.
Therapy leads to treatment plans that may include behavioral therapy, medication, hormone imbalance treatment or other alternatives.
Events of recent years have been hard on relationships. Some lost loved ones, and others went through divorces or break-ups.
“We’re all exhausted,” Bautista said, referring to medical care professionals and people generally.
Given her specialty, Bautista assesses stress on chemical and physiological levels.
“Our endocrine system is like a big orchestra,” she said. “If it’s working properly, it sounds pretty good. But take one instrument away, and the entire system is off. Therefore, we look at what’s happening in the body on a hormonal level. If multiple things are off, we tackle the worst one first.”
Bautista encourages people to seek out the support they need.
“There are support groups in our area that may be very helpful if you’re unable to find or afford individual counseling,” she said. “I also suggest reaching out to a local church that may offer counseling services as part of their ministry.”
In some cases, counselors, given the advent of online meetings, may be more available than they used to be.
Bautista said the transgender population has become a bigger factor in her practice.
“I think some of those individuals realized that life can be short,” she said, “and they want to start living a more fulfilling life as the gender they feel they are.”
A big part of Bautista’s job is simply listening. Listening, understanding and helping people find pathways forward.
“I have to remind myself and others that we’re not in this alone,” Bautista said. “We are all surviving this together. There’s solidarity in that, and we have to know that we’re resilient and can move forward from here.”