By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
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.
New Directions, which had been at 2808 S. Picher Ave., was leveled that night. The residential treatment offered there was the sole service that Ozark Center administrators couldn’t figure out how to provide right away.
At the same time, Mieseler knew that more people turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with disasters.
“It’s not necessarily that they’re alcoholics, either,” she said. “It just may be using it inappropriately, like to help them fall asleep. It’s completely common for people to turn to something to help them cope with a significant tragedy.”
Helping them was “impossible until we found a facility,” Mieseler said. Those who called seeking residential treatment were referred to sister agencies as far away as Springfield, Clinton and Nevada, or were offered outpatient treatment as an alternative.
In its last fiscal year before the storm, a period that ended March 31, 2011, New Directions provided treatment for 3,423 people. It has provided treatment to 2,453 people from April 1, 2011, through Jan. 30 of this year, Mieseler said.
After a ceremony Monday marking the opening of New Directions, Phil Willcoxon, chief executive officer of Ozark Center, said the numbers likely would be higher if so many buildings had not been lost in the storm.
“We anticipate a spike in coming months as severe weather season and the one-year anniversary of the storm nears,” he said.
New Directions has 14 residential substance abuse treatment beds and four private detoxification rooms. The building also is equipped with three offices for individual counseling, two group counseling and education rooms, and a family treatment and intervention room.
“We announced to the general substance abuse community we were opening Feb. 1 at 8 a.m., and that was just last week, and we’re already full,” Mieseler said.
Having the center open will be a “huge relief to the community,” she said.
“Some people just need residential. They’re never away from the bad scene, the pressures, the stress, the people or the environment.”
At Monday’s ceremony, the staff presented sobriety coins to two clients who were celebrating milestones: Roger Eshom, who has been sober for 10 years, and James Johnson, who has been sober for 20 years.
“They’re an example of the importance of a facility like this,” said Kelly Bokay, a counselor, after the ceremony.
Johnson said he struggled with marital problems, health problems and the loss of loved ones. Eshom said he was facing prison time unless he turned around. Both men agreed that it’s important to have treatment centers such as New Directions.
“It’s just a huge deal,” Eshom said. “It’s just done wonders in my life.”
OZARK CENTER is kicking off a new campaign, “Don’t let one disaster lead to another,” to be featured in all forms of regional media. It will be funded with part of the $7.5 million acquired from federal, state and charitable sources after the tornado.