Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Mental health needs of quake survivors pose risks to Haiti’s recovery

By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Survivors of Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake face growing mental health challenges that pose serious risks to the country’s recovery, said a priest-psychologist working in makeshift tent camps around Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

“Vulnerable people before Jan. 12 have become more fragile, and their conditions have worsened,” said Father Eddy Eustache, a Haitian priest who directs mental health and psychosocial services for Partners in Health in Haiti. In a May 26 e-mail message to Catholic News Service, he responded to questions about his work.

People are experiencing depression, sleep disorders, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

Currently, an expanded team of 31 psychologists and social workers working for the Boston-based Partners in Health serves about 80,000 people in four large camps scattered around Port-au-Prince. A team of locally hired assistants scours the camps daily for people in need of mental health services and informs people about symptoms of mental illness.

“Comparing to the hugeness of the needs, the team is small,” Father Eustache said. “But we are not the only (organization) providing psychosocial services.”

The agency also continues its regular counseling programs in the country’s Artibonite and Center departments, north of the capital, where thousands of displaced people have relocated since the earthquake. Local townspeople and rural dwellers face growing difficulties from the influx of newcomers and are turning to the agency for assistance, he said.

Father Eustache and his team have found that being unable to bury a loved one killed in the earthquake is one of the primary triggers of depression and stress.

Thousands of Haitians who died during the 45-second temblor were buried in mass graves in cemeteries and fields outside of the city. Many were buried without family members or friends knowing their whereabouts.

“The mourning and grieving process at that point was blocked with the flow of emotions,” Father Eustache explained.

To help people cope, Father Eustache created a memorial ceremony for people “where emotional expression is allowed and Christian hope, faith are enhanced to alleviate the burden of sorrow.”

“Many people tend to misunderstand the two concepts — spiritual and religious. (Some are) trying to scare survivors” to think they are “being punished by God through the earthquake. In my interventions I always having in mind: catholic, meaning universal, i.e. for all,” he wrote.

More than four months after the earthquake, the ceremonies continue in the camps, he said.

The priest cited the needs of sick children and people who lost limbs in the disaster as those who pose particular challenges to his staff. Many children — Partners in Health does not track numbers — have been orphaned or abandoned to fend for themselves in the aftermath of the quake.

UNICEF works with Partners in Health to find safe shelter for abandoned and homeless children in a foster family or an orphanage.

Father Eustache said that, since the earthquake, he has noticed that Haitian Health Ministry officials have changed their views on the importance of mental health services. Recent discussions between Minister of Health Alex Larsen and Father Eustache have focused on structuring publicly funded mental health programs to continue the services offered since the disaster.

At the same time, Father Eustache expressed concern about the future, writing that if conditions remain largely unchanged for people in the camps, their tolerance of their situation might begin to wane.

“Resiliency is very common in Haiti,” he said. “Some people tend to rely on it to justify passivity and inaction.

“If, over the next six months, any consistent improvement is not seen in the life of the population, the absolute threshold for patience in the survivors could be reached,” he said. “I think it is urgent. Despair may not be too far. Too late could be too bad.”

He also called upon the government to recognize the depth of suffering that Haitians face and to begin to take steps to change how the country has ignored people’s needs for decades.

“They can’t wait any longer to see things happen. More than ever it is time for action,” he wrote.

“Sane hope is a real asset of the Haitian people. Our faith can be a keystone in the rebuilding process of the country. This hope is my compass and my oxygen in the mission,” he said.

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