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"Deep Aftershocks": Fighting anxiety and depression in Haiti.

Posted May 12 2010 10:07pm

Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis: Sometimes it seems the world has been experiencing more than its fair share of massively lethal acts of God in recent times. Among the most devastating: the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which killed some 300,000 people.

According to a recent L.A. Times article , the price imposed by that disaster goes beyond the death toll and the economic costs. For many Haitians, the price has been mental illness
...The damage is still emerging months after many of the physical wounds were patched up.
An untold number of Port-au-Prince residents are suffering anxiety or feeling panic at the slightest movement that suggests the earth is shaking. Others have fallen into depression. For people who had underlying mental illnesses, the shock and grief have been severe enough to trigger a variety of disorders, including schizophrenia and mania, mental health workers say.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was never an easy place to live. Recent months have poured more stress on families, many of which are living on the streets with no money, unsteady supplies of food and a future that on many days appears to be a fearsome void.

"People were pushed over the threshold," said Peter Hughes, a London psychiatrist who heads mental health efforts in Haiti for the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps, which has three psychiatrists working here.
The article goes on to discuss good works being done to improve Haitians' mental health by groups like Partners in Health and the International Medical Corps
For now, the task at hand is getting people like Jeanne Paul and James Dort through their personal crises. Paul, the woman chanting Psalms nonstop, had been treated for mental illness and had improved, her sister said. Since the earthquake, she's had a relapse.
Dort, 28, says that since Jan. 12, his heart often suddenly pounds furiously.

Hughes and a Haitian psychologist, Kettie Archer, guide Dort through a series of questions about his life, the earthquake, his feelings. They demonstrate a breathing exercise that can help him relax and invite him to a meeting for people with quake-related anxieties.

Hughes concludes with a diagnosis that is familiar these days.

"There are a lot of people who have their hearts going fast," he tells Dort. "What you have is not abnormal. You're not mad."
Reading this sent me back to January 1994 and the Northridge earthquake. I'd been dealing with panic for about seven years by that point, and had been managing pretty well after moving to L.A. from New York the previous year, largely thanks to an aggressive cycling regimen. The earthquake, an experience I'd describe as like being inside a giant washing machine, set me back vis-a-vis anxiety for the year or so that followed. I would have to battle panic much more regularly than had been the case in a while -- whenever I was stuck in traffic on the 10, or halfway up a crowded escalator in the Beverly Center, or at a red light beneath a highway overpass (I'd been to see one of the overpasses that had collapsed, in Hollywood; the force that had caused such damage had impressed me with its power).

I know that period was a challenge to me, even given my privileged socioeconomic position relative to most Haitians; I can only imagine the difficulties some folks there must be experiencing today.

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