UNICEF USA and SUNY New Paltz to Train Mental Health Professionals from Puerto Rico’s Department of Education in Trauma Management

More than 1,700 mental health professionals will be trained to identify and address signs of trauma from natural disasters in classrooms across the island

Institute for Disaster Mental Health team members. From left: Deputy Director Karla Vermeulen, Director Amy Nitza, Special Programs Manager Cassandre Surinon. Photo by Héctor Suárez De Jesús.

In response to the earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico in January, as well as the effects of Hurricane Maria, UNICEF USA is partnering with SUNY New Paltz to provide training for psychologists, social workers and professional counselors within Puerto Rico’s Department of Education to address trauma from natural disasters in classrooms across the country. Through these trainings, DoE mental health professionals will better understand how traumatic events such as hurricanes and earthquakes impact children’s well-being and learning capacity, and develop strategies to support children enrolled in the public school system.

“By using a ‘train-the-trainer’ model, our professionals from the Secretariat of Student and Community Services across seven regional educational offices will be trained to understand and respond to the needs of students exposed to the traumatic effects of natural disasters. What we are looking for is that our social workers, professional counselors and psychologists develop strategies to respond to the behavioral changes of the impacted student population and create trauma-informed classrooms,” said Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez.

“We know that natural disasters, especially to the scale of what Puerto Rico has experienced, affect both the physical and mental well-being of children and adults,” said SUNY New Paltz Institute for Disaster Mental Health Director Dr. Amy Nitza. “Our goal with this series of trauma-informed trainings is to ensure children in all schools have access to educators who understand how the impact of the earthquake, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, impacts children’s ability to learn. At the same time, these trainings aim to help those in the helping fields provide strategies for addressing students’ needs and overcoming learning barriers while emphasizing the need for practitioners to also practice self-care. We appreciate UNICEF USA’s support and partnership, and Governor Cuomo and New York State’s focus on this important initiative.”

The partnership between UNICEF USA and SUNY New Paltz has evolved from efforts to rebuild homes and revitalize communities started under New York Governor Cuomo’s New York Stands with Puerto Rico initiative, and continues ongoing trainings led by Dr. Nitza this year.

Trainings will begin on March 2 across Puerto Rico and reach counselors, counseling facilitators and psychologists. A second training will also be held for social workers from the DoE, who reach over 1,124 students throughout the school system.

After Hurricane Maria, UNICEF USA provided psychosocial training to community leaders across Puerto Rico and worked with local nonprofit organizations to support the nutritional needs of children affected. Leveraging its expertise in addressing and mitigating child trauma around the world, UNICEF USA remains committed to supporting the psychosocial needs of children in Puerto Rico.

“As extreme weather events linked to climate change become more frequent in the Caribbean, schools must continue to be supportive environments for children impacted by natural disaster. By working with the Department of Education to create more trauma-informed classrooms, together we’re helping support Puerto Rico’s next generation so they can reach their full potential,” said Edison Sabala, Director of Humanitarian Response and Impact Partnerships at UNICEF USA.

This press release was published by UNICEF USA on Feb. 26, 2020, and reposted here to share with members of the SUNY New Paltz community.