2016-05-12

This leading American clinical psychologist was one of the first mental health experts on the scene after the Haitian quake. She shares her inspiring journey of training Haitian helpers to comfort survivors.

See Dr. Judy's photo gallery of images from Haiti.

Within five days of the news of the tragic earthquake, Father Wismick Jean Charles and I jumped on a Jet Blue plane landing first in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, where we caught a six-hour bus ride to Port-au-Prince.

With all the tragic news about people being buried in the rubble, Father Wismick, a Haitian-born Catholic priest, had to see if we could retrieve the bodies of 10 of the young priests whom he had trained. He’d learned that they were trapped in the rubble of a school building that collapsed. Sadly, we were unable to retrieve their remains.

We came with five suitcases stuffed with medical supplies to deliver to a local hospital. We also planned to set up a system to offer “psychological first aid” to the Haitians who were suffering emotionally as well as physically. We set up camp at St. Louis King of France Church, a parish in Port-au-Prince related to Father Wismick’s order, and stayed along with hundreds of parishioners in open air or under a tent in the churchyard. Like thousands of survivors in Haiti, we lived without running water, showers, or comforts. Food was scarce; fortunately the priests and nuns fed us rice and beans twice.

I had been to Haiti just a few months earlier with Father Wismick to oversee the development of a community center being built in his native village, Petites Desdunes, about four and a half hours from Port-au-Prince. It had been ravaged by the recent floods. As the main representative to the United Nations for a non-governmental organization, The International Association of Applied Psychology, I have been involved with many projects aimed at implementing the UN Millennium Development Goals, including efforts to eradicate poverty and AIDS, provide education, and combat violence. A year ago, we invited Father Wismick to join our team, and we committed to support his efforts in Haiti. Now in New York while attending Fordham University to get his Ph.D. before going back to Haiti, Father Wismick has become a cherished friend and colleague whose work I admire.

On the previous trip, we were enthusiastic and optimistic about building a brighter future for Haiti. The quake set all these efforts back dramatically and tragically, but made us instantly determined to go on a mission there, despite the dangers, to bring some healing and hope into the desperate situation. Once there, Father Wismick conducted many powerful prayer services, and we trained a group of young Haitians in a comfort program I designed to help others in dire need.

The scene upon arriving at Port-au-Prince was surreal, more terrible than what we had seen on TV. Imagine downtown New York, Paris, Shanghai, or Hanoi in ruins; that’s how the center of town looked. The earth may have shaken from beneath, but buildings collapsed as if bombed from above. Cars, schools, businesses, and people were trapped underneath the rubble, encased in a silent tomb. Instead of houses, people were living side by side on blankets, brushing their teeth, washing their clothes, staring into nothingness, and sleeping on those blankets which staked their territory as a home.

I have worked at countless disaster sites in my life—9/11 in New York, the tsunami in Sri Lanka, Hurricane Katrina, an earthquake in Australia, bombings in Israel, and many others. But the devastation of the Haitian society was pervasive, with all aspects of society--education, government, religious, and other institutions of daily life, from day care centers to shops--destroyed. Whatever amount of time it would have taken for this impoverished country to get on its feet before, it would now require generations.

At first glance, people appeared to be coping, going about life, washing, praying, even selling goods in frenzied markets, but blank stares revealed the stage of shock that always comes in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Research shows that even in resilient cultures, people suffer emotionally from the losses, especially when those losses are so pervasive. And even if most people in a culture are skeptical of talking about feelings, there are those who find it helpful. For example, as soon as one family heard that a priest and a psychologist were in the churchyard, the dad of a teen who had pulled herself out of the rubble, asked for a “session.” Many of the parishioners who were not familiar with exploring deeper emotions welcomed the opportunity to explore the meaning of this terrible event. One such person was the psychologist in our church campground, Bob, who referred poignantly to his reliance on Viktor Frankl’s "logotherapy"--a search for meaning in the midst of total disaster--which was the only way Frankl survived the holocaust.

Extensive social psychological research about coping with grief and disaster identifies that after shock, the next phases bring out anger and depression, until reaching acceptance. This will undoubtedly happen as time and daily difficulties challenge the people of Haiti. But despite so many shocking sights and sounds, during my week-long mission in Haiti I also saw glimmers of hope.

Unselfish Helpers

Disasters like the Haiti quake can inspire hope through the extensive humanitarian response of individuals and the international community. At the hospital in Port-au-Prince where we set up our comfort station (L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne), I encountered doctors from all countries, including Korea, the West Indies, and Chile. They were all stressed but determined. One surgeon fought back tears as he told me there were just too many people to treat and too few supplies. He cleared his throat and recovered his composure, as an aide grabbed him to go down the road to tend to a young girl with glass protruding from her elbow. After treating her, he came back to tell me how he had never seen such devastation, but "we have to do whatever we can do." A young business student told me how she rushed to volunteer at the hospital where, despite being afraid of the sight of blood and having no medical experience, she accepted being assigned to assist in the operating room. She learned quickly how to hand over the correct instruments, because, as she put it, "Everyone does their part, even things you never dreamed you would do, in such an emergency." Such courage and humanity on the part of helpers is a source of hope in this terrible tragedy.

Haitian Boy Scouts to the Rescue

At the church where Father Wismick and I stayed, I quickly determined ways to train local people in some of the trauma survival skills I had applied in other disaster situations. These are techniques I had collated in my "Clinical Toolbox for Cross-Cultural Counseling and Training" that had just been published in a professional book for training graduate students. I had learned from so many past experiences that just having someone present, and knowing someone cares, gives a sufferer much needed comfort. Certainly that was relevant in this situation, as so many were hurt and not enough were available to help. I needed to recruit people who are warm-hearted and who care about helping others, since doing simple acts of kindness did not require years of professional training. Even with my 30 years experience, I've found that a good initial approach to help most survivors is to do simple acts of comforting. For example, we brought water and warm gloves and posed a simple question, "Hi, do you need anything?" to 9/11 rescue workers in the pit at the World Trade Center. The plan I developed with Father Wismick in Haiti was to train community leaders and common folk as comforters and helpers, so that they could then pass the techniques on to others in the village to create sustainability until other professional teams could come to offer further training and assessment of needs. Spying a young boy in a brown Boy Scout uniform, I had an "aha" moment, remembering how my brother had been a scout and recalling my own wonderful years as a Girl Scout, and realizing how these youths are already prepared to help. I immediately gathered the five Boy Scouts and one Girl Scout, and trained them in some simple psychological first-aid techniques. Then we all left for the hospital to help patients.

The Blessing of Helping Others

Hope was evident in the fact that people who are in pain themselves want to help others. And in doing so, they help themselves. At the hospital where we brought medical supplies, L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne, we were greeted, to our surprise, by a group of 35 Haitian psychology students – gathered by the social worker, Jean Yves Valcourt. Just the day before he had mentioned his plan to send a message to a few students to come learn support skills and to spread the word to other students they could contact. I marveled at the large group of young people who came so willingly to help, assembled within so few hours. I set about training the students to use tools and techniques for dealing with their own and others' trauma, relevant for their culture. Since most spoke only French, I used my fractured French learned in high school and college classes, with help from Father Wismick, who provided messages in Creole, embellishing the lessons and adding prayers. The group was all eager to learn and to apply their new skills to care for those suffering. Despite my fears that seeing the extent of the wounds and pain of the patients, they would not want to return, all 35 of them signed up for shifts to return, even some committing to daily service. As a psychologist, I know how important it is to make a sincere commitment. Since I’ve been back in New York, it has been exceptionally rewarding to get phone calls from the hospital social worker that the youth helpers continue to keep their schedule. There is hope.

Caregivers Find Comfort in Asking for Strength

Another message of hope emerged from the debriefing after the youth training. Modeling the self-care lesson we were taught in our training as Red Cross volunteers after 9/11, I asked all the Haitian volunteers to go around in a circle and share something they plan to do for themselves that would represent “being good to yourself.” When I had participated in these debriefing circles in New York for our 9/11 relief work, I would occasionally echo my mother’s favorite self-treat, that of taking a hot bath. Other New York volunteers answered that they would go to the movies, eat pizza, or pet their cat. There were hardly pizzas and movies in Haiti after the earthquake, nor could they treat themselves with anything that would cost money. I needed to give them an example, so I came up with a non-material one: “I’d ask for a hug from my friend.” Motioning for Father Wismick to please give me a hug, he obliged, and that got them started. Most echoed one another, but the main response was, “Je veux devenir plus fort pour aider plus les autres” (“I want become stronger to be able to help others more”). At first we tried to get them to pick something else that would more clearly be for themselves, since they were already doing so much for others.

But when they persisted with that answer, I realized the depth of their idea. To these youth, asking for strength to help others was as legitimate or comforting as treating themselves to pizza or a movie. I was moved and massively impressed by their intention to be empowered to serve. As we continued around the circle, hearing more wishes for strength and courage to help others more, I asked the group to encircle each other with that strength and courage. Some lifted their arms in a universal sign of victory. The group laughed in a spirit of togetherness and hope. It struck me that these young comforters instinctively embodied the psychological principle that has been proven by research about volunteering and providing aide: in helping others, you are helped yourself.

All in all, the experiences were a powerful embodiment of the Haitian saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”