On April 15, 2013, at 2 p.m., Manya Chylinski was thrilled to be sitting in the bleacher seats at the finish line of the 116th Boston Marathon, an event and tradition central to the culture and heart of the city of Boston. For the first 49 minutes, the experience was amazing and celebratory—cheering for the runners who worked so hard to cross that line. Manya and so many others were caught up in the joy of this beautiful day.
Then, in an instant, everything changed. An eruption of sound and panic crashed down around her when two bombs exploded on the north side of Boylston Street. One ear-splitting explosion. Then another. Chaos, fear, and confusion followed as Manya feared for her life, not knowing what would come next. In the following days, she was bombarded by graphic images of the deadly impact through gruesome news coverage.
Unlike many that day, Manya walked away without any physical injuries. She thought that meant that she was lucky to leave unscathed, that she was okay. But soon, she realized that she was not. In the days and weeks that followed, she experienced deep anxiety, fear, and emotional numbness. Daily tasks were interrupted by intrusive thoughts that the world around her was exploding. Many months later she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Available mental health support failed to meet the moment
Despite solidarity expressed across the nation, a powerful community response for those impacted, and an outpouring of recovery resources for survivors’ physical injuries, support for the many dealing with the mental health impacts was difficult to find. After struggling to find affordable and accessible mental health care, Manya got help through her private healthcare provider, the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, and the Red Cross.
While these resources eventually helped her to heal, more could have been done in the immediate aftermath of the bombing to help survivors navigate and identify counseling and group support. In the years after the bombing, Manya has met many others who were at or near the finish line that day, returned home traumatized from the experience, but did not know how or where to get support.
If it weren’t for her own tenacity in seeking support, she may not have become the bold, active advocate, and survivor she is today. That advocacy work led her to reach out to Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s office in 2021.
In the summer of 2021, Manya shared her story with Pressley, who was a Boston City Councillor at the time of the bombing. Since arriving in Congress in 2019, Pressley has made addressing trauma a top priority, organizing the first ever Congressional hearing on childhood trauma and introducing legislation to support community-based, healing-centered resources.
Manya shared her story of feeling invisible and marginalized due to the lack of resources to address the mental health wounds experienced by so many. Her case is only one example of how the federal government did not provide survivors with the support they needed.
In the following months, Manya and Pressley worked hand-in-hand to draft H.R.5703, the Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act, which would extend the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) existing Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP) to crises that receive Emergency Declarations, like the Boston marathon bombing.
CCP reimburses state and local governments for hiring counselors, organizing group counseling and intake appointments, and establishing mental health support hotlines, for instance, at no cost to the survivors. Currently, this grant program is only available following larger-scale major disasters.
Mental health wounds don’t discriminate by the size of the tragedy, and feelings of distress are normal. According to recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report, mental health and substance use issues during and after disasters constitute a major public health concern, and there is overwhelming evidence that the majority of injuries or trauma in most disaster settings are psychological, as opposed to physical. The report also notes that many people who develop new mental disorders after disasters or other traumas do not receive treatment in time to reduce distress or prevent disorder, in part because they are not identified and assessed in a timely manner.
With more than 4,000 Congressional districts experiencing at least one Emergency Declaration over the last decade—from hurricanes and earthquakes to terrorist attacks and other mass acts of violence—passing this legislation is more important than ever.
Pressley has been working to build a coalition of support for passage of H.R. 5703 in Congress, and momentum for the bill is growing. In February, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a markup of H.R. 5703, and just last month, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the Senate companion legislation out of committee unanimously.
As we mark One Boston Day and reflect nine years later on the Marathon bombing, we must continue centering the needs of survivors of all disasters and provide them the resources and counseling they need to recover from their trauma and begin to heal. We can start by enacting the Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act, a simple fix that will help people in their hour of need and have a lasting impact on the health of our communities.
Manya Chylinski is a speaker, writer, advocate and board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Massachusetts. US Representative Ayanna Pressley represents the Seventh Congressional District of Massachusetts.