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James S. Gordon

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Helping Haiti Heal

Posted: 05/16/2012 12:48 pm

Over two years since the devastating January 12, 2012 earthquake, half a million Haitians still live in tent camps where food, water, employment, and hope are in short supply. Robbery and rape haunt the night. The impact on the psychological well-being of the tent-dwellers is calamitous, with soaring incidences of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, bed-wetting, alcoholism, and child abuse.

For two years, my colleagues and I at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine have been training health and mental health professionals, teachers, priests, nuns, and voodoo healers to deal with their own stress and trauma and then to help the populations they serve. We teach them mind-body techniques like slow deep soft-belly breathing, meditation, guided imagery and yoga and expression through words, drawings and movement. We also guide them in creating small groups to support their own healing and the healing of children and adults.

Before and after the trainings, I visit with kids in Port-au-Prince's middle and working class schools, in the slums of Cite de Soleil, and in the tent camps and orphanages. The children sit shoulder-to-shoulder on benches in corrugated, tin-covered, open-air classrooms. Most look okay as they raise their hands and clamor to respond to their teachers' questions. But it turns out that they have trouble concentrating and are often angry, agitated and withdrawn. In quiet moments, many relive the late afternoon of January 12, 2010, and feel again the trembling of the catastrophe, the physical dislocation and emotional loss.

When visiting a classroom, I begin by teaching students and teachers how to do soft-belly breathing. The kids catch on quickly and say they feel, even after a few minutes, "plus calme" and "paisible."

"How many of you," I ask, "have trouble sleeping?" Eighty to 90 percent of hands rise.

The children say the images of their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and cousins trapped under earthquake rubble keep them awake. So do fears of the ominous return of the restless, perhaps vengeful, dead.

The psychological trauma is also pervasive in Jacmel, a seaside town three hours over the mountains from Port-au-Prince, where we've begun training a new group of 120 caregivers. While Jacmel wasn't hit hardest by the quake, many lost family members in Port-au-Prince and live in homes crowded with people seeking refuge.

The men and women who come to our training greet the self-care techniques we teach like desert dwellers welcoming rain. Our training is an oasis; "a place where one can know herself," one doctor declares. "A new family for us," a participant happily observes. It turns out to be a very large and ever expanding family. People who have traditionally been wary of each other, such as voodoo healers and Protestant ministers, discover their commonalities in loss and share the joy of learning new, immediately helpful techniques.

Everywhere our Global Trauma Relief program has worked -- Kosovo, Macedonia, Israel, Gaza, and southern Louisiana after Katrina, and with US military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan -- we feel our trainees' eagerness to learn and share. Studies of our 10-week long model of mind-body skills groups show an 80 to 90 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms.

The people we have trained in Port-au-Prince have already reached 15,000 children and adults. We also have created a local leadership team to organize and supervise their work. In Jacmel, it seems like everyone wants to take what he or she has learned and "partager," or share it as fast as possible. "All the children in our schools must learn this," announces a nun who is a principal. "If we had these teachings in January of 2010," a farmer and informal community leader says, "we would not have suffered as much from the earthquake." He concludes, "I will bring everyone to the town square so they can learn."

We estimate that in a year, each person we train will lead at least four 10-week long mind-body groups, with 10 people in each, reaching 100 to 200 more in individual, family, classroom, and church work.

There is no simple answer to Haiti's long history of suffering, oppression and poverty, to the abyss of loss and sorrow which the earthquake has opened. However, our work represents a crucial part of physical and economic rebuilding and is essential in giving the Haitian people the tools they need to heal their troubled minds and broken hearts.

 
 
 

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