Haiti

Physical scars may have healed but emotional ones will take longer

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Here in Haiti, everybody has a story to tell about the day of the January 2010 earthquake. Everybody lost somebody.

One day over lunch we started talking about the Earthquake with our Haitian colleagues; they were exchanging stories of where they were when at 4.53pm on the 12th January the ground began to shake. A girl told of how her mum went out in the morning and never came back, of the fear that set in as the setting sun was suddenly obscured by a cloud of black dust and flames. Rumours in the capital started circulating that the whole of the Caribbean had been wiped out by a huge tsunami.

One man explained the chaos and confusion that followed the earthquake, of how people were shouting for help with cries of “help me” or “I’m not dead yet”. He took a torch and with his neighbours set about trying to rescue people. They discovered a man trapped under a slab of concrete – amazingly still alive but desperately dehydrated. They gave him a bottle of water to quench his thirst but this caused his body to go into shock, and tragically the man collapsed and died minutes later.

If in an average western population one in four people will suffer in their lives with some kind of mental health problem, it is difficult to imagine what these levels are like in Haiti, where people have suffered not only the trauma of a large scale earthquake but also a cholera epidemic which killed 7000 people, several significant cyclones, and years of political instability, not to mention high levels of food insecurity and chronic poverty.

I am guessing the figure here is much higher than one in four: one Haitian psychologist claims that since the earthquake 60% of the population suffers with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sadly, most of those affected are not lucky enough to receive the specialist attention they require due to a severe lack of trained mental health professionals and services on offer. Others may be misunderstood, and their symptoms interpreted as madness.

This is one of the reasons that Trócaire has chosen to support initiatives which strengthen mental health provision in Haiti. These initiatives target some of Haiti’s most vulnerable communities such as those living in camps in Port au Prince and Leogan (the epicentre of the 2010 earthquake). Some projects educate community leaders to recognise early signs of mental health problems and to refer people on for treatment, and train primary health care providers to treat these problems. Others focus on simple self-help and healing techniques so that those affected by trauma can cope better with everyday life.

These initiatives are more important than ever now, given that around 100 international NGOs were active in mental health and psychosocial support after the earthquake, but today there are only 20.

We are helping to rebuild people’s lives physically – through building and repairing houses and livelihoods – but also to help them heal the emotional scars caused by events of 12th January 2010 which, undoubtedly, will take longer to heal.