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Psychological First Aide in Haiti

American Psychologist and Haitian Priest help Survivors and Train Boy Scouts as “Comforters”

Survey reveals how survivors are coping

Port-au-Prince, February 4, 2010: Much has been reported about the destruction and physical stressors in Haiti after the tragic earthquake, but attention needs NOW to be paid to the emotional trauma of the people, including survivors as well as of helpers including hospital staff, volunteers, recovery workers, police and even clergy. 

Noted clinical psychologist, expert in disaster intervention, and well-known TV and radio personality, Dr. Judy Kuriansky, was on the ground within days of the earthquake in Haiti to give “psychological first aide” to survivors and responders. Working with a Haitian-born Catholic priest, Father Wismick Jean Charles, Dr. Judy trained a group of 35 youth, including Haitian Boy Scouts and students, to serve as “comforters” of the wounded. The youth are still visiting patients at the hospital, carrying on their support to those suffering.

“Research and past disasters prove that survivors have extreme emotional reactions post- disaster that are ignored for weeks in light of the priorities of food, water and shelter, and tending to physical conditions,” says Dr. Kuriansky. “Helpers are also traumatized but often suffer in silence.”

Dr. Judy has been to Haiti with Father Wismick before the quake, to oversee the development of a community center in his native village, which had been affected by the recent floods in Haiti. Part of the religious community in Port-au-Prince, Father Wismick lost fifteen young priests he trained (who were like his “sons”) who were buried under the rubble of their churches and schools, as well as parishioners who were praying in the churches at the time of the quake. Father Wismick and Dr. Judy attempted in vain to retrieve their bodies.

“Right now people are still in shock, and are heroically coping, but more severe emotional reactions – including severe depression and anger -- will set in as the weeks of deprivation wear on,” says Dr. Judy. In addition, the essential mourning process for the dead is incomplete, as many bodies are still buried under the buildings.

“Children are playing in the streets now, but when asked, they report nightmares, stomach problems and headaches,” says Dr. Judy. Particularly worrisome, she points out, is that children are not able to go to school, which will result in a lost generation who are uneducated. “Creative means will have to be found to make up for this. In an ideal world, funds and resources could provide computers for children to learn.”

Dr. Kuriansky, who has responded in many past disasters, like after 9/11, SARS in China, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami and bombings in Israel, notes simple techniques can help people cope, including breathing, rituals to feel safe, and seeking comfort from others. New connections and family constellations will have to be formed, especially in a culture based on extended family. The church also has a major role to play, given the cultural traditions.

A survey of Haitians in a church parish reveals that the majority were “scared” “panicked” and even “angry” about the tragic event. They interpreted the tragedy predominantly as “God’s will,” with one fifth of respondents noting that God is angry over people’s sins or evil-doers, and 15% explaining the event as an act of nature. Regarding how they are coping, over one half said they rely on God’s will and prayer, with 1/5 crediting support of others. One respondent comfort himself by comparing himself to others and seeing that he suffered fewer losses.

Yet, church leaders themselves report feeling sad and stressed, including from leading daily services and suffering losses themselves.

While the radio is a potential resource for programming to gu8ide community rebuilding and individual advice-giving, stations suffer from lack of advertising revenue, missing staff and damaged equipment.

The following issues related to psychosocial support are also important to address in the aftermath of the crisis in Haiti.


Amputee Children


The plight of the children and orphans in Haiti has been highlighted in dramatic news stories about abuse and trafficking, but a subgroup is at risk in another way: child amputees.  Young children who have had limbs amputated are in danger of having nowhere to go and no one to take care of them, given the stigma of amputation in Haiti culture.


“Some injured patients would rather die than have a limb amputated,” a nurse in the operating room at a local Port-au-Prince hospital, Hopital de Communcaute Haitienne (HCH), told Dr. Judy.


Even infants crushed in the buildings have had limbs removed, because of lack of adequate medical resources to operate on them.  A 13-month old girl who had her foot amputated lay in the hospital tended by an aunt. But her future is unsure: her mother had died; the aunt was skeptical about whether she could take the little girl in given that she already had her own children to care for; and a hospital volunteer noted that it was unsure whether the father would take the little girl home given the burden of caring for her. Dr. Judy was present in the operating room when a five-year old boy was having his leg re-set, but his left arm had already been amputated from the shoulder down.  During the operation, the attending nurse explained the stigma such disabled amputees can face in Haitian society.


The Boy Scouts as Comforters


At the local church where they stayed, Dr. Judy encountered a group of Boy Scouts whom she immediately recruited, and trained, to be “comforters” to volunteer at a local hospital (HCH) to soothe the wounded minds and souls of hundreds of patients lined on blankets outside.

“Since so many people were in pain with limited professional staff to give them attention, the Boy Scouts filled an important role in showing the survivors that someone cared,” says Dr. Judy.  The Boy Scouts were taught how to comfort patients with simple techniques used by even experienced mental health professionals.

Dr. Judy, who has offered “psychological first aide” to survivors of many past disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami, notes that people without professional training can be enlisted to give emotional support. “While research shows that a certain percentage of people do suffer severe reactions diagnosed as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” says Dr. Judy, “majority of people, especially right after a disaster, need to feel they are not alone and be offered support."

In helping others, the Boy Scouts themselves are also helped. As one Scout said, “When I aide others, I feel helped myself.”

Roger Schrimp, chairman of the Boy Scouts of America’s International Committee, brings attention to the contribution of Scouts in such tragedies by stating, “ ‘On my honor, I will do my best!’ is a pledge that each of us has taken as a Scout.”

“Helping the Helpers”. Dr. Judy and Father Wismick coordinated with a local hospital (HCH) in Port-au-Prince, where teams of foreign medical staff and local volunteers are helping survivors. Dr. Judy spoke with an American doctor fighting back tears as he describes the overwhelming task of tending to patients lying wounded on blankets and makeshift cots on the street outside the hospital. A volunteer doctor from Korea relates his fears about getting PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). A young woman (who owned a restaurant and says she can’t stand the sight of blood) relates the story of how she ran to volunteer at the hospital and was emotionally devastated when a baby died who she tried to help be delivered.  She took Dr. Judy and Father Wismick to the site where she buried the baby, and Father Wismick did a prayer over the grave. Another young woman who was working in finance before the earthquake ran to volunteer at the hospital and was put to work in the operating room as an “assistant nurse” in the operating room, when she knew nothing at all about medicine, and was stunned at the new responsibility.


Helping the Survivors. At the church where Father Wismick and Dr. Judy stayed, the priest who survived the quake by jumping out of a collapsed building on the church grounds, now has to minister daily to the parish while suffering his own stress, nightmares and difficulty sleeping. A female doctor in the parish pulled her son from the rubble and now is dedicated to helping the parishioners, despite severely limited resources and her own distress. Frightened parents of a young teen who ran out of her school just before the building fell, ask for therapy. Given the lack of trained local mental health workers, Dr. Judy and Father Wismick trained 35 youth including a group of Boy Scouts and psychology students, to be “comforters” of parishioners and patients. The comforters walked amidst the patients to give out water and offer a sympathetic ear. These new psychological first aide recruits felt good about helping others, reporting that helping others also helped them cope with their own trauma. The patients were also grateful that anyone cared to talk to them. These helpers are now recruiting other youth and training them in the techniques they learned.


Dr. Kuriansky and a consortium of mental health professionals in New York are coordinating teams of professionals to address these mental health needs.

Visit www.drjudy.com for Haiti pictures. Other photos, and original video, are available.

To interview Dr. Judy, contact: 917 224-5839 DrJudyK (-at-) aol (-dot-) com, or Vanessa Kim, OneWorldExperience, 646-484-9890, Vanessa (-at-) oneworldexp (-dot-) com (M) 646.428.5217

About Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D: Dr. Judy Kuriansky is a licensed clinical psychologist on the adjunct faculty in the Department of Clinical and Counseling Psychology at Columbia University Teachers College and the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. At the United Nations, she is a UN NGO representative for the International Association of Applied Psychology and the World Council for Psychotherapy, and on the executive committee of the Committee on Mental Health. She has been working with Haitian native Father Wismick Jean Charles developing a community center in Haiti, and was recently recognized with an award from the President of the Dominican Republic “for her support and dedication to UNA-DR and FUNGLODE youth initiatives.” An expert in psychosocial first aide, she has worked in disaster relief after 9/11 at Ground Zero and the Family Assistance Center, and around the world after SARS in China, bombings in Jerusalem, an earthquake in Australia, Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Dr. Judy is also the Director of Psychosocial Programs for U.S. Doctors for Africa, on the board of the Peace Division of the American Psychological Association, and a member of the Disaster Section of the World Psychiatric Association in collaboration with the Ibero-American Ecobioethics Network for Education, Science and Technology and the UNESCO chair in Bioethics. She is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Hong Kong and Visiting Professor of Beijing University Health Sciences Center. An award-winning journalist, she has been a television feature reporter and host of popular radio call-in advice shows, and currently comments on current events on many news and talk shows nationally and internationally.

About Father Wismick: Father Wismick Jean Charles is a Haitian-born Catholic priest who is currently completing his Ph.D. at Fordham University and ministering at parishes in Westbury, Long Island. He is preparing to return to his native village in Haiti where he is in the process of building a community service center to feed and educate the children and provide medical services.

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