JOPLIN, Mo. —
On the night of May 22, doctors and nurses took care of tornado victims who had visible wounds.
But in the weeks and months to follow, there were countless storm victims with wounds that were not visible, said Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services at Ozark Center, the behavioral health unit of Freeman Health System.
With eight of Ozark Center’s buildings destroyed or badly damaged, reaching those patients was a challenge. Those eight buildings represented half of the locations under the umbrella of Ozark Center. They included residential and outpatient psychiatric care and substance abuse treatment units — collectively serving more than 13,000 patients in the Four-State Area.
The Behavioral Health unit at St. John’s Regional Medical Center also was destroyed that night.
On Monday, Ozark Center reopened the last of those eight buildings: New Directions, a residential substance abuse treatment center at 3010 S. McClelland Blvd.
Mieseler said both anecdotal information and statistics gathered from a number of sources, including local law enforcement and agencies such as Lafayette House and Children’s Haven of Southwest Missouri, indicate that social and behavioral problems in Joplin have spiked since the storm.
Mieseler said Joplin has seen an 80 percent increase in alcohol and drug problems since the storm, a 120 percent increase in child sexual abuse cases, a 40 percent increase in domestic violence and a 40 percent jump in gambling problems. She said there were 12 suicides in Joplin between May 22 and July 31 that the Ozark Center staff believes were related to the tornado in one way or another.
“We’ve had a number — too many people — call us and say, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m at wit’s end. I don’t want to live anymore,’” Mieseler said. “What we find out is they took their insurance check and gambled it away, and now they’re destitute. They thought they could double or triple it quickly to pull themselves out.”
Similar increases have been documented after other big disasters — Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, for example. New England Journal of Medicine articles have noted increases in domestic violence, mental illness, suicides and substance abuse after major disasters.
“Our first order of business was to figure out facilities we have, what were usable, and how we could provide services without bricks and mortar,” Mieseler said.
Within 72 hours of the tornado, about 90 percent of Ozark Center’s services were up and running somewhere, including from caseworkers’ cars, Mieseler said. Staff members established a command center at 305 S. Virginia Ave., where they also provided outpatient substance abuse treatment to those who sought it.
St. John’s Behavioral Health reopened in October near West 32nd Street and Central City Road.