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Maui's Mental Health Crisis





As we approach the one-year anniversary of the devastating wildfires that destroyed Lahaina, the full scope of Maui’s mental health crisis is just starting to emerge.

 

Last August, the Maui community was devastated by the deadliest fire to have struck America in over 100 years. In a single day, over 100 people were killed and over 10,000 residents lost their home. Major trust issues continue to pervade the local population who are still reeling from the fires and trying to understand how such a horrible tragedy could have even happened. All this trauma has been further compounded by the prolonged stress of not knowing where you are going to live or work. As one Maui resident stated, “I’m so exhausted mentally and emotionally having to move every 28 days, not knowing where you’re going next or how long you can stay… The stress is causing more trauma than we’ve already been through.”


The University of Hawaii released initial findings from their Maui Wildfire Exposure Study in over 600 fire survivors. They found that “roughly 30% of participants reported feeling moderate or severe anxiety” and “these numbers were significantly higher than state and local averages," researchers said, noting that the mental health impact seemed to extend beyond those who were physically exposed to smoke, ash and debris.” An earlier survey from Hawaii’s Department of Health found that 22% of Maui households rated their mental health as poor or very poor. These numbers are in line with or even slightly higher than what was found in prior disasters like the Paradise fire in 2018 or the Fort McMurray fire in 2016, where 10-20% of the adult population in the vicinity of the fires had chronic PTSD when assessed 6-12 months post-fire. In children and teenagers, the rate can be twice as high. Such high base rates indicate that thousands of people on Maui are already on the downward spiral toward chronic PTSD and all the pain that comes with it including anxiety, depression, suicidality, insomnia, and addiction.

 

There has always been a longstanding shortage of mental health care professionals on Maui, especially those trained in trauma-informed care. In these situations, data from prior fires shows that oftentimes the medical system copes with large-scale disasters by prescribing highly addictive medications like benzodiazepines to temporarily numb the pain and anxiety. Likewise, many residents will try to self-medicate using alcohol or other drugs, perpetuating a vicious cycle of addiction. Indeed, preliminary data from 2023 revealed a nearly 50% increase in drug overdoses last year on Maui, a striking finding which was not found on any of the other islands. In the coming years, we can also expect to see an increase in emergency department visits for anxiety and panic, along with an increase in the number of people who commit suicide, which often peaks during the second year following a natural disaster.


A new community mental health survey funded by the government is expected to be released in the next few weeks. The survey found a significant bump in the number of people on Maui who reported that their mental health has deteriorated as compared to two years ago. Maui United Way interim director Lisa Grove recently gave a preview of the report's main findings: “Every single data point says it’s worse than you think it is in terms of mental health,” Grove said. “And that’s what we’re trying to help our funders and the community understand, which is that we may only be at the very beginning of this thing.”


The warning sirens are sounding but is anyone listening? Stress from the fires has already started to spiral into chronic PTSD, which is extremely debilitating and can affect entire populations for decades. Our nonprofit is racing to bring FREE clinical float therapy to the island in order to help the people of Maui with their long-term mental health. We are up against the clock and really need your support as we try to address this unprecedented surge in PTSD.


For more information on the project and to learn more about how you can donate or become an official sponsor, please visit MauiCalm.org

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