February 19, 2010 marked my first glimpse of Port-au-Prince, which was ravaged by the January 12th earthquake. This trip was made possible through contributions made from Hope Christian Church and Saybrook Alumni Association. I noticed right away that things were changed. For example, we had to line up and be bused to another compound to go through immigration. What was the same, however, was the welcoming music played by the airport musicians. Many Haitians looked forward to the sounds of tambourines and island songs as confirmation that they have landed in their country, “Haiti cheri” (beloved Haiti). I searched for my suitcases and checked out of the airport. As the car drove away from the airport into my hometown, Petion-Ville, I started seeing the crumbled buildings, houses, schools, and apartments. So many people remained under the rubble leaving their loved ones to grieve without a body or to assume that that they are dead. In conversation with the earthquake victims, there are still many people hoping that their loved ones were not home and had stepped out to run an errand—what devastation. Many are paying others to dig for their loved ones two months later in other to give them a proper send off. It is culturally important to grieve and bury a loved one before closing the chapter even with just bones. The reality is that some will have to settle for a simple memorial service since their loved ones have been dumped into a mass grave.
This earthquake has humbled so many. Haiti was often divided into classes, but after the earthquake, all classes vanished. I met a woman on the plane who shared with me how she used to scold her servant for bathing outside of the house. Now she, too, was bathing outside behind some sheets out of fear for an aftershock. Those who separated themselves from others have become one under a tent. People have become neighbors in the real sense of the word. The suffering has caused everyone to reunite as one. For some of us who lives outside of Haiti, Haitian-Americans, it has caused us to be more grateful and to count our blessings, and not to complain. All humor aside, faith is one of most domineering element in this event. I can say with certainty that the people will move forward because of their spiritual belief. Ninety five percent of Haitians I came in contact with were able to say that God is in control of their life. Children and adults alike say things like “God gives and takes, may His name be glorified”. Even those who are in bed suffering, those who are on the verge of an amputation, or those who lost everything and are sleeping on the streets—the common denominator is the same.
On this journey, I was able to work with two organizations, Promise for Haiti (Pignon, Haiti) and Hope for Haiti Foundation (Zorange, Haiti). In addition, I was able to spend some time in Port-au-Prince circulating through various communities of Petion-Ville, Delmas, and Bossier. I spent 5 weeks in Haiti and serviced approximately 600 people through groups, individual, family counseling, and classroom presentations. In addition, Pastor Rock provided me with an opportunity to speak to the earthquake victims via radio (102.5, Bethesda radio) on the impact of the earthquake. The calls that came in during the segment showed how desperate people were for mental health services. I was unable to take callers after the hour, but many callers were asking for another session. I used these weeks not only to counsel people but to educate and introduce them to mental health.
On a psychological level people are not faring too well which is understandable under the circumstances. The youths are showing some serious signs of PTSD and they are concern about their future. They are experiencing anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, amenorrhea, fatigue, stomach aches, hallucinations, and nightmares. On an educational level, some are questioning whether or not they will be able to go back to school and learn; when will the nightmares stop? Is it normal to feel this way? These are the questions echoed by high school and university students. Many have developed a hypersensitivity to noise. Some of them jump at the slightest movement or sound; children tell me that they are unable to hear the helicopter and it scares them; some feel that the house is shaken at least 6 times a day. At a nearby school, the teacher hit the eraser on the board and all the children took off running. Many children and adolescents are unable to sleep under a roof or even sit inside a home for longer than five minutes.
What do they look for and need? They seek answers and a quiet place. It is hard to find a quiet place; many of them are living in crowded camps, homes with other families, and orphanages with many others so finding a quiet corner seems impossible. They need reassurance that psychological services will be available to them until they can adjust to a routine. In working with them, I find that they need to remain busy throughout the day with some sort of activity whether it is sports, helping the little ones, drawing and painting or volunteering in church. Teaching them techniques for relaxation and meditation is necessary. Explaining to them what is taking place and why it is happening seemed to work well, especially with the adolescents. Although many of the children began to attend school, the adult victims have too much time on their hands. They talked about the sleepless nights and the long days, which seemed longer than before without much to do. They complained about the fact that the supplies or food are only distributed in some places and some people are receiving too much while others are starving. They have also voiced that the goods are being sold to those who can afforded it. Many continue to get sick because the tents they created do not help them on the rainy days. Some are terrified of the city while others want to go back feeling that is the only way to get serve. Bringing the word of God into the sessions provide the anchor that they need. Teaching them to be a source of support and comfort to each other via group counseling (Lakou), letting them know that the things there are experiencing are not unique. Other cases will necessitate much more work; cases like fear of the roof. These individuals will need to be desensitize, which cannot be done in a few weeks.
Long term, the international community must establish mental health centers where the people can continue to come for support and to feel free to talk about their progress or lack thereof. Students who are attending school should have access to a counselor in the school. Play therapy should be part of these plans for the little ones. Many of them would not freely talk with me but would start a conversation once playing started. They would say things like, you know I saw a car flip over with the people, or you know I am scared of dead bodies, or I am afraid to sleep alone. Developing a relationship with Haitians is key if you want them to talk to you.
Otherwise, you will be seen as a stranger. The puppet, big bird, was a hit for me with the little ones. The children are not used to going to a counselor, psychologist, or social worker’s office for a conversation. Many of them are unaware of what these people do. It has to be explained to them in children’s language and put into action. A mental health worker should be placed in every school to help children deal with the post earthquake emotions or stress. The educators must attend professional development on the symptoms in order for them to be effective; they should also develop a referral system. In addition, the entire country will need an introduction on educating children with a handicap. Haiti is not used to provide children who are disabled with accommodation. These children were often put away. Now they are face with so many children, over 10000 amputees, who will not have a future unless the country is educated on the issue and design a plan to include them in the formula. Many of these amputees are developing low self-esteem; there are feeling inferior to their peers. Some are being told that their dreams are over; they will not marry or attend college/university. Others feel that the stares are too much to bear. These conversations must occur prior to the rebuilding and restructuring of schools.