Our VoiceNews & Politics

Haiti Also Needs Psychological First Aid

Chris Bober • Feb 03, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti this past month is reportedly the region’s worst in over 200 years. In the immediate aftermath, Haiti’s President René Préval called the devastation “unimaginable” with the quake destroying the country’s infrastructure and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. An early estimate by the Haitian government puts the death toll at 150,000. Sadly, the number of lives lost may never be known because many Haitians were forced to bury their own family members and some bodies may never be recovered from the rubble.

In disaster relief missions of this magnitude, the first response is to provide immediate relief to the region. This includes medical care, food, water, and shelter. It is important to note that those involved with this effort are doing a heroic job providing these absolute necessities. They help to create stability and safety while reducing the ultimate death toll. However, some in the mental health community are concerned that not enough will be done to take care of the emotional needs of the Haitian people. Many of whom are in acute distress and run the risk of long-term trauma-related illness if adequate crisis care is not provided.

Former President Bill Clinton who is part of the U.S special envoy for Haiti has stated,

“Unless you’re in a search-and-rescue team or a medical team, the best thing you can do is give money for food, water, shelter and first aid supplies. Those are the things we need.”

In response to this, the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Counseling Association (ACA) have posted directions on how to send money to the Red Cross. For members, both groups have posted recommendations for therapists working with clients in the U.S. who may be deeply concerned about deaths and injury in Haiti. They have also provided recommendations to the general public about how to manage personal stress levels.

While all of this is extremely helpful, both groups just seem to be waiting for members to be called up by the American Red Cross before they get actively involved. It is also unclear what plans are underway or whether direct care will be provided if they do mobilize.

While it is commendable that both organizations are following well-established international disaster relief protocols and are taking great care to not assign poorly trained professionals for overseas work - the crisis in Haiti is too big, too unique to follow convention.

Furthermore, growing research shows the need for early crisis interventions that “emphasize individual and family psychological first aid and that foster resilience, facilitate natural support networks, and provide outreach and information are preferred (and empirically supported) intervention responses” (Collins & Collins, 2005, p. 478).

This care is what many psychologists and counselors are trained to do. A simple re-telling of traumatic events or immediate “debriefing” with first responders is not enough anymore – and not good enough for Haiti.

Therefore, I propose, when appropriate, culturally-competent counselors and psychologists must be brought in from international communities to help those in Haiti recover. The scale of this unimaginable tragedy demands a new, specific strategy which utilizes the full-spectrum of mental health practitioners.

We can’t afford to sit on our hands, let’s start planning now.

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