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Healing Haiti: The Emotional Trauma of Repeat Crises

photo of haiti earthquake damage
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Aug. 24, 2021 -- Steeve Verdieu was at his workstation in his bedroom when the shaking started the morning of Aug. 14. He jumped under his desk and held on as a 7.2-magnitude earthquake tore through his childhood home in southern Haiti.

Verdieu, 25, says all he could think about was 2010, when a strong earthquake hit the country and left more than 200,000 people dead.

“Most of these adults that are in their mid-20s and 30s have vivid memories,” according to John Fitts, assistant director of Sent To Serve. He started working in the nonprofit sector in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

“I can’t even relate to it,” Fitts says. “If you didn’t live through it, you cannot relate.”

Verdieu emerged to find his family alive and his home in crumbles.

“In the neighborhood, we have only one child who died the day of the earthquake, but mentally, everybody feels bad,” he says. “Also, we are really frustrated right now because it tends to rain, and everybody is outside right now. So, we are a little bit afraid.”

Verdieu says that his community has not seen or heard of government authorities coming to offer guidance on next steps.

So, he started posting photos and videos to his Twitter account to seek help.

Surviving to Heal

Many Haitians are forced to quickly turn the page after major crises, says Fitts.

“Survival overrides emotional shock,” he says. “They’re not going to have time. They’re not going to think emotional wellness at this point. It’s not addressed because they don’t have the opportunity to address it. So, it gets buried.”

More rural areas of Haiti were hit hardest by the recent earthquake, which killed over 2,000 people.

Many people were left without shelter and had limited access to food, clean drinking water, and medical help for those severely injured.

But current problems in Haiti, like shaky leadership after the recent assassination of the country’s president, left many people with no direction on what to do next.

With no information coming in, many, like Verdieu, took to social media or tried calling family and friends to find help on their own.

Having access to basic needs, like food and water, lessens the emotional trauma after these types of disasters, according to Betty Jean, a licensed professional counselor and global mental health and trauma consultant.

“When there is a crisis like an earthquake, the number one thing people need is a sense of safety and that there are entities that are concerned about their overall well-being,” says Jean, who is Haitian. “The emotional and mental support that we have to provide to people begins first with attending to those primary needs.”

But that’s not always possible in Haiti, mostly due to poor infrastructure, according to Caleb Lucien, founder of Hosean International Ministries.

“For example, the earthquake took place in the south of Haiti,” says Lucien, who is Haitian. “There has been some gang violence blocking passage from Port-au-Prince [the capital] to the south. Because of the gang fighting, it has been difficult to take the risk of traveling by road. So, airplanes from the capital city have been trying to get supplies there.”

More Than Resilient

Haitians are usually applauded for their inner strength to keep pushing amid crises. But it’s important to understand that there is often grief behind their resiliency, according to Jean.

“Sometimes I struggle with that word,” she says. “When I say resilient, I mean they will survive. But we are talking about a traumatized people. I definitely believe the people of Haiti are a people that have PTSD. The Haitian people have not yet fully healed from the first earthquake. I don’t think there was time. And many Haitians are suffering silently right now.”

The trauma shows itself in various ways, says Wilford Marous, entrepreneur and founder of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain.

“I went traveling in Europe with some colleagues of mine to attend some conferences, and one of them, who is Haitian, refused to sleep in a building because he believed it was too high,” he says. “He still had this fear of the earthquake.”

Children are often most affected, Fitts says.

“They don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “Their parents are not there necessarily to give them the emotional support that they need because they’re just trying to survive when things like this happen. So, a lot of things don’t get addressed and they’re taught early on to move on.”

Hosean International Ministries evacuated 1,500 people after the earthquake in 2010, and 750 of them were kids. The group stayed on the charity’s campground, and children had the chance to continue their education through its school system.

“Kids had issues sleeping,” Lucien says. “They are dealing with the loss of their loved ones. Some of them lost their moms. Some lost their brothers and sisters. So, we had to work with them and try to get them through that process.”

The charity offered children and their parents counseling sessions to lessen some of the emotional impact after the earthquake.

Common Trauma Responses

But keep in mind that symptoms like depression and sleeplessness would be common for most people going through mental health crises, such as major natural disasters or war, says Guglielmo Schininà, head of mental health and psychosocial support at the International Organization for Migration.

“It’s important not to jump to conclusions with diagnoses for mental illness or disorders,” Schininà says. “Suffering exists and suffering is not a mental disorder and shouldn’t be treated as such. In other situations, psychological effects like these could be symptoms of mental disorders. But in this situation, these are just normal reactions.”

Alongside trauma from natural disasters, many Haitians are angry about the chaos in the country, given the number of resources brought to Haiti over the past decade, according to Jean.

“We should have had better infrastructure, better roads, lights, emergency plans, trauma hospitals,” she says. “The resources were there.”

The constant lack of safety and security within the country can have ugly outcomes, she says.

“A lot of the political instability, rebels, gang activity, and war within those in politics has been because oppositions feel that those who are in power have not done a very good job of upgrading the Haitian lifestyle,” Jean says.

Unity and public togetherness are key in times like these, Marous says. He suggests finding creative ways to promote widespread healing.

“Even if it’s trying to start some sort of healing process through the media,” he says. “Having someone talk to the population, even on TV, one hour in the morning. That might be a way to offer some sort of help to the population at large.”

Strategic Rebuilding

Haitians across the world are rallying together to keep spirits high, while also helping with recovery efforts, Jean says.

“We have to step in for the morale of the young people,” she says. “They’re tired. They’re hungry. They want to be cared for. So, our role in the diaspora is really critical in helping Haitians come out of this very traumatic time.”

Hosean International Ministries is organizing and sending supplies to parts of Haiti hardest hit by the earthquake. The ministry is also helping to rebuild some of the homes destroyed by the earthquake.

It’s important to keep in mind lessons learned from past recovery efforts, says Lucien.

“What we need to do is work with local leaders, asking them exactly what it is that they need,” he says. “The tendency is to rush and say what you’re going to bring. People brought things in 2010 that were not needed. Look for people on the ground, and work with them to provide the help.”

“My call to the international community is how can we come alongside of this resilient nation to alleviate some of the pressure,” Jean says. “But whether or not the help comes, I do believe the Haitian people, yet again, will rise day to day, until we restore and rebuild again.”

This is certainly true for Verdieu.

He has already launched an online campaign to rebuild his home.

WebMD Health News


The New York Times: “‘We’re on Our Own’: Many Earthquake Survivors Expect No Help From Haitian Officials.”

Steeve Verdieu.

John Fitts, assistant director, Sent To Serve.

Betty Jean, licensed professional counselor, global mental health trauma consultant.

Caleb Lucien, founder, Hosean International Ministries.

Wilford Marous, entrepreneur; founder, Haitian Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain.

Guglielmo Schininà, head of mental health and psychosocial support, International Organization for Migration.

Hosean International Ministries.

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