Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haitian Psychological Needs Must Be Addressed

By Laura Blank, Huffington Post

Digline L.*, watches her granddaughter, Lucia, as she twists her tiny hands, staring at the sunlight that lands on the roof of their tent. Like everyone else here, she doesn’t say much — answering questions only in short sentences.

“I am trying to stay alive. I am trying to keep my heart at peace,” she finally said with a hint of pain and loss in her voice. “Everybody is doing what they can.”

In the aftermath of a disaster like Haiti’s earthquake, the kneejerk reaction is to address the most basic, fundamental needs of the survivors: food, water, and shelter. But now, more than two months since the quake shook this city’s core and left millions in its wake, what are the most urgent needs for people like Digline?

A recent World Vision survey of 600 households in and around Port-au-Prince found that nearly 80 percent of respondents said that they were living in fear, afraid of additional aftershocks, due to being in inadequate shelter and exposed to the weather, or the possibility of rape or being attacked because of poor security. The survey findings illustrate the emotional toll that the quake has had on Haiti and its people.

“We tend to ignore the psychosocial needs of survivors in a disaster like this, but it is one of the most important things we can do to help people recover and begin rebuilding their lives,” said Alice Male, a mental health and psychosocial program officer with World Vision.

Alice is no stranger to the needs of communities struggling after a disaster. Originally from Uganda, she saw the tragic effects of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s war in northern Uganda and the rise of HIV and AIDS in the south leave Ugandans struggling to come to terms with their own experiences. Her work has also taken her to the Democratic Republic of Congo and post-genocide Rwanda.

There’s no doubt that the relief response continues. Families still need enough rice to feed their children, strong enough shelter to protect from the coming rains, and clean water. With millions of dollars coming in from generous donors around the world, there is a strong push from the global community to help Haiti’s survivors. But there’s still more work to be done.

“When I first arrived here last week, I tried to understand what the Haitians had experienced,” said Alice. “In northern Uganda, there was a war, and the result of the war was death. Here in Haiti, there was an earthquake, and the result of the disaster was also death. In both cases, the impact on the people was tremendous.”

“There’s no question the Haitian people have gone through a lot. The quake was a traumatic experience for them,” Alice acknowledged.

But what can be done when so much of the relief effort must still focus on providing the most basic of needs for Haitians?

Alice says her first priority is to get out into the camps and communities, to hear directly from the survivors about their experiences living through the disaster. Gaining a better understanding of the context and the needs of the survivors through on-the-ground assessments is critical because every post-disaster situation is different.

After that, World Vision will begin group therapy sessions through the pre-existing mother’s clubs and Child-Friendly Spaces that have been set up in the aid agency’s camps throughout the city. Short-term therapy options like these group sessions help bring together people with shared traumatic experiences, helping them express their feelings and develop health coping mechanisms.

“Group therapy is helpful in a post-disaster setting like this one because you can reach many people at the same time,” she said. “This is an emergency. We need to reach out to as many people as we can.”

The work doesn’t stop there, though. Alice and her team will train community volunteers to serve as group facilitators, helping to lead group discussions in each of the camps. The facilitators will also be trained to identify mental health symptoms and refer them to the appropriate treatment and care.

Often, people in group therapy sessions like these will form meangingful, long-lasting friendships that go a long way toward helping them recover and rebuild their lives, not only physically but also mentally.

“When the mind is sick, the body can’t function well,” said Alice “Providing psychosocial counseling gives people coping skills that will help them live much fuller lives long after the emergency response has ended.”
*Note: the names of the people in this story have been changed to respect their privacy.

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