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In Haiti, Mental Health Still a Concern for Many Quake Survivors

July 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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In the last of his week-long series of reports from Haiti, Ray Suarez examines the mental health problems survivors are having following January's devastating earthquake.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the last of Ray Suarez’s reports from Haiti, six months after the earthquake. It’s a look at the nation’s mental health.

RAY SUAREZ: In the desperate first days after the January quake, the first response went to those with bruised tissues and crushed limbs. Finding help was harder for those with bruised psyches or a crushed will to live.

MARIE DENIS ST. LOUIME, Doctors Without Borders (through translator): We are seeing more cases of people who have contemplated suicide now, because they have had the time to look back and really focus on what they have lost, whether it be a family member, or material things. They’re looking back now. It’s weighing on them.

RAY SUAREZ: Doctors Without Borders runs a vast field hospital in Port-au-Prince. There, psychologist Marie Denis St. Louime treats children at risk or already exhibiting mental health problems. They have survived loss of parents and siblings, homelessness, trauma, injury. And St. Louime is pushing back against their terrible sadness.

MARIE DENIS ST. LOUIME (through translator): We try to tell them that this has already happened, and they still have their life, so that’s what they need to be grateful for. We try to encourage them to see that way. There is no way to go back. There is no way to change, so we do our best to give them strength.

RAY SUAREZ: The children are getting a variety of what’s called psychosocial treatment. Sometimes, it’s nothing more complicated than getting those who need the help away from the camps and clinics, as Mercy Corps did recently, to a soccer stadium, to be entertained by a popular disc jockey, to play the Haitian version of Simon Says, to run and dance, to just act like a kid.

ELYSE NOESILLE, Partners in Health, Haiti (through translator): Psychology is all about balance, and there is nothing balanced about living in a tent camp. Between the way they are living and not working, these are all things that compound mental health. So we’re trying to address those needs and bring back order into their lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Elyse Noesille a psychologist working for Partners in Health. He says the children he sees have become more aggressive, have trouble sleeping, or overreact to noise. He works with the residents of a sprawling homeless camp, Centre Sportif Dadadou. A thousand families live here.

Noesille and his colleagues average about 800 consultations a month. He says, for his young patients, it’s important to confront these issues now.

ELYSE NOESILLE (through translator): Are you having trouble focusing in class? Is there anything on your mind that takes you away from the focus of the class? Do you sleep well? Are you ever startled from sleep?

RAY SUAREZ: The Partners in Health mental health team estimates they see 100,000 mental health patients throughout the four camps they oversee. Psychologists like Noesille average 10 consultations per day. The heavy load can take an emotional toll for the healers as well.

ELYSE NOESILLE (through translator): Every time listening to patients tell their stories, I would relive the experience myself. So, as psychologists, we turn to each other for support.

RAY SUAREZ: Adults may be every bit as vulnerable as children, but a little better at hiding their suffering — for a while.

WOMAN (through translator): I lost my mother and my son. Now I’m constantly having panic attacks, I keep reliving the moment of when my mom and my son perished.

WOMAN (through translator): I lost my family, my sister, my cousins. I feel like something is gripping me. I’m about to lose my head and I don’t know what to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Michelline Richards struggles across a rutted field in a wheelchair, her infant son, Reginald (ph), born months before the quake in her lap. Richards was feeding Reginald when the quake began. As she ran from her house, part of the roof fell on the base of her spine. She’s 19, paralyzed, and eight months pregnant.

Earlier this year, she was bounced from one medical facility to another, and wanted to die.

MICHELLINE RICHARDS, Haiti (through translator): I knew my baby was safe, but I kept asking why I didn’t just die that day. My baby needs me, and my therapist has helped me understand that. I don’t wish for death anymore. I’m better off and getting stronger.

RAY SUAREZ: Psychologist St. Louime says she expects plenty more patients to head to the clinic as Haiti’s recovery continues.

MARIE DENIS ST. LOUIME (through translator): We find, six months later, the people who have repressed these feelings are now coming in to seek help. But, in their case, because they have repressed it, they have now done some damage to themselves and are starting to relive things with a lot more emotions, but don’t know how to deal with it. These people, we try to focus on more, because they need much more work.

RAY SUAREZ: Mental health experts say some of the emotional burden has been eased by the fact that thousands of Haitians share similar painful stories and can grieve together. But, in a country where mental health services barely existed before the quake, the challenge remains huge.