The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday March 24th

Helping Haitians deal with tragedy

The horrific earthquake that struck Haiti just over a month ago has left the island desecrated. Stories of the more than 200,000 dead, 300,000 injured and 1 million displaced have caused worldwide sadness and prompted incredible generosity.

Aid has been showered upon Haiti and medical teams have arrived to mend trauma victims. Medical needs have begun to shift from surgery to treatment of chronic conditions and preparation for potential epidemics of infection during the rainy season.

But what about the mental health of survivors who have witnessed family members die, lost limbs to amputation and now face an uncertain future?

The Pan American Health Organization has created a mental health subgroup to address these issues. Such resources are surely needed but we must not forget that unlike broken bones or infections, mental health is influenced by culture and treatment must be handled carefully.

It would be fair to assume that during such a traumatic time, many Haitians would need to talk to a psychiatrist, receive a diagnosis and either take a medication that corrects a chemical imbalance or receive counseling.

But Sophia Delpe, a Haitian-American second-year medical student at UNC, says Haitians do not talk much about emotions and avoid labels like depression.

“It’s taboo,” she said. “Mental health is not something that people talk about.”

In fact, some of her family members have not had been afforded time to grieve. Her aunt, from Port-au-Prince, returned to work the day after the earthquake at the urging of her boss.

It seems callous given the emotional turmoil she must have endured, but Delpe states that it has helped.

“In a way it has been therapeutic,” Delpe says, “Life is going on and is moving forward.”

Of course, this is just one example out of a huge population of people each with their own harrowing story. One might not see the same resilience from a mother who lost her entire family and had both legs amputated.

Many foreign doctors have been faced with survivors who are visibly traumatized and appear unable to cope. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Dr. Lynne Jones of the International Medical Corps said some doctors, desperate to help, can only give tranquilizers.

Jones said this is not a suitable approach. But then how will Haitians deal with their grief?

Delpe said getting Haitians together to share their stories could be beneficial.

Visiting doctors can also offer to listen but should not be surprised if locals are hesitant to ask for help. More importantly, generous donations will help prevent Haitians from suffering further hardship, like trying to survive the rainy season without shelter.

Through it all, there will be a number of Haitians who, like Delpe’s aunt, will soldier on bravely through this disaster. Dr. Astrid Desrosiers, a Haitian psychiatrist at Mass General Hospital in Boston, writes in the American Journal Psychotherapy, “For many Haitians the ability to forget is equated with strength.”

To the outside observer, it might seem like too much to bear, but the capacity to maintain silent fortitude during such tragedy could be the most potent tool Haitians have to stave off despair.


Andrew Moon is a second-year medical student from Durham. Contact Andrew at

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