The territory hadn’t completely recovered from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Changes in lifestyle and stress resulting from both events have compounded for many Virgin Islanders, resulting in increased depression, anxiety, abuse, suicide and substance abuse.
To combat these mental health issues, the nonprofit group Beautiful Dreamers works to provide healthy strategies for children, families and individuals who are having difficulties coping with today’s unique challenges.
Beautiful Dreamers provides educational and behavioral health services — including psychiatric, psychological, medication management, autism services, counseling, training and special education services — to residents, schools and organizations in the Virgin Islands and Georgia.
Beautiful Dreamers founder and Executive Director Vincentia Paul-Constantin grew up on St. Croix. A licensed mental health counselor in the Virgin Islands and Georgia, Paul-Constantin is a National Board-certified counselor and a former special education teacher with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, Master’s degrees in student personnel administration and counseling, clinical mental health counseling and special education, and a PhD in educational leadership.
Paul-Constantin returned to the Virgin Islands after Irma and Maria, contracting with FEMA to provide free counseling services for residents on St. Thomas and St. John. She had been working in Georgia and Haiti, but realized the real need for crisis counseling in the Virgin Islands. When her contract with FEMA concluded, she decided to open a practice on St. Thomas.
“Irmaria really stirred things up here in the Virgin Islands,” she said. “When I came in, it was specifically for FEMA, but we needed to support these people, because there is such a difference between crisis counseling and clinical counseling. Crisis counseling gives them some real-time coping mechanisms, some skills and tools they can use in the moment to help alleviate some of the emotional reactions they are having, whereas clinical counseling is ongoing to dig into the triggers of why an individual is presenting the way he or she is presenting.”
The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands provided the initial grant to establish Beautiful Dreamers in 2018. The emphasis was on children and their families, because children are the most vulnerable in our community and, if given the tools that they need now when they are still pliable, they will be able to apply those tools throughout their lives, Paul-Constantin said.
As the team grew, they realized they could help individual adults as well.
Paul-Constantin, family systems clinician Roland Riviere and Dr. Robert Hunter, a psychiatrist, see patients at offices on St. Thomas, St. Croix and in Georgia. They are joined by Gaetane Borders, an experienced school/clinical psychologist and K-12 school administrative leader based in Georgia; Simone Rey in the St. Thomas office; and former St. Croix Women’s Coalition director Khnuma Simmonds, who works from their St. Croix office. There are also several part-time workers.
Beautiful Dreamers also helps the community through training and outreach.
They partner with the Health Department to provide services at clinics and recently partnered with the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network to provide training on issues such as burnout and compassion fatigue.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they worked with the Education Department to provide school counseling sessions. And, they also assist the Human Services Department, particularly with the Head Start program, to train educators. They suggest behavioral modifications for classrooms and work with managers on topics such as emotional literacy, de-escalation exercises, emotional regulation and workplace building.
In the community, Beautiful Dreamers often works with community organizations such as the Family Resource Center and My Brother’s Workshop.
Dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes as well as a pandemic is taking its toll in the territory. The biggest affect Paul-Constantin sees is what she calls the “kissing cousins,” anxiety and depression. They have seen a lot of PTSD and an increase in suicide in children, depression, a decrease in cognitive achievement and a heightened sense of stress and fear.
“We’re looking at the pandemic, but not necessarily the outshoots of the pandemic, the financial burdens as a result, the closeness in families, which brought about a rise in abuse, sexually and domestically,” Paul-Constantin said.
“We have families that have never lived together before, but because of the financial strains, are living together now, so we have some children living with adults who are not quite clear on what healthy boundaries look like and see an increase in violence with our children from their caretaker.
“They are exposed to more pornography and inappropriate materials because they are at home and there’s no separation between them and the perpetrators. Then we have the offshoot of educational challenges and families that can’t work because their children are at home. In this community, we see there is such a closeness with grandparents, but we are also pulling them away from that support network. It’s all around. There isn’t one area left untouched.”
According to Paul-Constantin, another side effect is substance abuse. Because drinking is an acceptable part of our social interaction, the Virgin Islands is seeing an increase in intake of alcohol, marijuana and narcotics, as people look for ways to cope. The islands are seeing an increase in sexual promiscuity as well, particularly in the younger population.
“What we would want for our children is to be socially interactive and play with their friends and have a separation from school, a life balance, but we don’t have those things anymore,” said Paul-Constantin. “There was a study recently where it was noted that the next pandemic is one of mental health. We can see it.”
As a nonprofit, Beautiful Dreamers accepts everyone, whether they have insurance or not, including individuals who are undocumented.
“When someone walks in the door, they walk in with the intention of seeking help, so we meet them where they are regardless of financial restraints,” said Paul-Constantin.
For more information on Beautiful Dreamers, visit www.beautifuldreamers.org.