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Mental health resources becoming increasingly available to survivors of Ky. tornado outbreak

Damage is visible from a tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
Jeff Dean
Damage is visible from a tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.

More than six months after the December tornado outbreak, many western Kentucky residents are looking for mental health resources to help them navigate the trauma caused by the disaster.

A regional collaborative of counselors – Project Recovery – has already started a support group in Mayfield. They’ve also been endeavoring to work with people in Cayce through the local Fulton County schools and with the Fulton County long-term recovery committee, where pastors have been offering counseling.

In the Hopkins County community of Dawson Springs, one woman decided to take matters into her own hands and start her own support group for impacted community members.

Meredith Hyde is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner from Dawson Springs. Hyde and her family lost everything in the tornado, like so many others in the Dawson Springs community. She knows what her neighbors are going through and wants to help.

“Maybe a few days after it, I went out to Pennyrile [Forest] State Park and there was a lot of families there,” Hyde said. “There was like 250 plus people there, and my concern mainly was, not only helping with physical needs, but more mental needs. This is quite the tragic thing that we've just went through and how are we all going to recoup from that. PTSD is very real and the longer we wait to treat it, the harder it is to treat.”

Hyde felt called to do something to help her community, even as her family tries to rebuild their home and lives.

“I kept waiting for someone else to do this,” Hyde said.

She had hoped someone would take on this element separate from financial and housing needs.

She planned for people to speak to the group on a variety of topics related to coping and resources to keep the community hopeful for the future. She asked people she knew in the community to speak at the event and tell people about ways they can support each other. The group met for the first time on Thursday.

There are some other groups at work in the area, such as the Pennyroyal Center, a mental health services provider in the area. They’re one of the organizations working with Project Recovery to help tornado-impacted communities. Audra Hall is the coordinator of emergency services and she acts as the incident commander for all disaster preparedness and response at the Pennyroyal Center. She’s also the team leader for Project Recovery in the area.

Hall said the Pennyroyal Center was on the ground and helping the day after the tornadoes.

“We were responding to the different places, even the hospitals,” Hall said. “We were on the ground in the communities, helping with all of those efforts, and then we started working with the emergency shelters, stuff like that, with the state parks, and go into hotels, anywhere people are being housed.”

The Crisis Counseling Grant was awarded to the four community mental health centers in the areas impacted by the December storms. The grant comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Its goal is to provide crisis counseling to tornado survivors during the year after the storm. Using those funds, the Pennyroyal Center has been able to work with the local long-term recovery group to identify needs in the community and try to offer services to those in need.

“We meet people wherever they are, so we can go to their school, we can go to their home, we can go to their work, the church, wherever it is that they need us to meet with them, we can do that,” Hall said. “Sometimes, some of the people have moved out of the area because they no longer…their home was destroyed so we can even offer services virtually, to individuals that no longer live in our community or maybe they're waiting to rebuild or those types of things before they come back.”

Hall said their goal is to eventually start support groups.

For now, though, they’ve set up a 24/7 response line to connect people with resources through Project Recovery. That response line can be reached at 877-473-7766.

“It's important to know you are not alone and that there are reactions to disaster response, trauma that are very, very normal and with early intervention, it really prevents something more long term from occurring,” Hall said.

The Madisonville-based Western Kentucky Dream Center has also been working towards mental health initiatives since the disaster.

Director Michael B. Knight said the center set up in five different locations to distribute resources in the aftermath of the storm. They also started offering basic counseling at those distribution points.

Knight, the lead pastor at Covenant Community Church and the president and founder of the Never Before Project, said the center is still providing counseling and giving out donated funds with a vetting process.

There is also a phone line people can call that is connected with the Knight’s church. The line, which can be reached at 270-821-2049, connects to people within the congregation.

“Counseling now is week to week based on people who come in and ask for help and it happens a lot of times inadvertently,” Knight said. “One of the problems in western Kentucky is that people don't want to ask for help … but when you get them in here and you begin to help service their needs, that is really where the counseling takes place.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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