Haiti: Psychological Effects of the Earthquake

As many as one in five Haiti earthquake victims have suffered trauma so great with the multiple shock of lost homes, jobs, and loved ones that they won’t be able to cope without professional help. Dr. Lynne Jones, a senior medical adviser for the International Medical Corps says that “It’s not about immediate psychological counseling; it’s about assisting mourning.” Jones, a veteran of natural disasters and wars from Bosnia to Indonesia, is teaching front-line doctors how to identify “disabling fear” and, literally, hold people’s hands and listen. She says that “The doctors in such situations tend only to hand out tranquilizers. We don’t want them to do that.”

Most of those diagnosed with severe trauma are treated as outpatients because there is no room for them in the country’s 91 functioning hospitals. Port-au-Prince’s only psychiatric hospital is barely functioning. All but 11 of its more than 100 pre-quake patients were removed by relatives who feared the building would collapse in another quake. Dr. Peter Hughes, an Irish psychiatrist, is studying what to do. He explains that many of the hospital nurses are afraid of entering the building out of fear of another quake. He says that “There’s no electricity and no running water. Some patients are in a barred room. There is a need for mattresses and working toilets.”

It is not known how many mental health workers are available to help in Haiti. Pan American Health Organization officials who are coordinating medical care among more than 200 aid groups have only just begun to create a database of hospitals, patients, doctors and medical resources. But it seems clear that Haiti will have to train more of its own personnel to work on the front lines with people suffering from psychological trauma.

PAHO Dr. Jorge Castilla, lead coordinator of the aid groups in Haiti, put out an urgent request Sunday for mental health professionals. “But this is not easy because they have to be able to adapt to the culture and the language,” he said. “I can’t have hundreds of volunteers coming here who don’t speak the languages.” Castilla said he’s looking to the French Caribbean islands of Guadelupe and Martinique as possible sources.

“One of the most traumatic experiences for tens of thousands of Haitians is knowing that their relatives have been buried in mass graves, deprived of funerals while their survivors are denied the chance to properly grieve.”

For full article, see http://www.boston.com/news/world/latinamerica/articles/2010/02/07/urgent_health_emergency/

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