Relief for the Spirit

AFD Lay Mental Health Workers lead a workshop at a camp in Tabarre

Aristide Foundation Lay Mental Health Workers Lead Workshops in the Camps

Four months after January 12 the experience of that day — the terror and the losses — remain vivid and present in the minds of all Haitians who survived the quake.   Nearly everyone has some degree of post-traumatic stress with hyper-vigilance, startle responses, sleep difficulties, intrusive memories, fear, anxiety, grief, and anger widespread.    Even before the quake Haiti’s mental health structure was nearly non-existent.  Right now for the majority of the population of Port-au-Prince, who are now living in tents in refugee settlements, mental health care is both inaccessible and foreign to their experience.

Beginning in late April the AFD in cooperation with a group of social workers and doctoral students from the University of Michigan began working together to to create a Haitian-model for lay mental health workers to reach people in the camps.  Ten extraordinary young Haitian college students spent a week receiving training from Leah James, a social worker and doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Todd Favorite and Dr. Mike
Messina, psychologists at the PTSD clinic at the Ann Arbor VA. (Read Leah’s Huffington Post Article Describing the evolution of this project here).

A Haitian psychologist who has been providing mental health care at the AFD weekly clinics signed on to advise the project, and provide ongoing mentoring for the young mental health workers.   Together they created a culturally appropriate  90-minute  psycho-education and coping skills curriculum.  The project that has emerged from this collaboration we are calling Soulaje Lespri Moun, or Relief for the Spirit.  Soulaje Lespri Moun is an expansion of the AFD Mobile School project.  For the past four weeks The Lay Mental Health Workers have been working at two of the mobile school sites (at Carradeux and Building 2004),  leading workshops for parents of the children who’ve attended the mobile schools.

US Mental Health Professionals training AFD Lay Mental Health Workers in April

The goal of the workshops is to decrease stigma, shame, fear, and self-blame and increase ongoing healing and communication within families and communities.   The Lay Mental Health Workers first encourage participants to share their experiences and talk about the symptoms of trauma they are experiencing.   They work on trying to “normalize” the responses, that is to emphasize that it is a normal human response to continue to feel that the ground is shaking, to be hyper-vigilant etc.    And then they teach basic relaxation and self-soothing techniques designed to reduce symptoms of physiological hyper-arousal and thus decrease anxiety, fear, irritability, startle response, bodily aches and pains, and sleep difficulty.

Soulaje Lespri Moun is not an effort to train mental health professionals with the skills needed to work with the seriously mentally ill (although this is needed, too). Rather, it is a movement toward widespread dissemination of education and coping skills to benefit the general public in the belief that some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress among the population can be alleviated through basic psycho-education about common reactions to trauma paired with training in relaxation and other coping strategies.

We began the project as a pilot to train this first group of 10 mental health workers, and find out how participants in the camps responded to the workshops.  Given the conditions of life in the camps — hunger first and foremost — we wondered if people would be motivated to participate.   Initial results are heartening, in fact inspiring, largely because of the dedication and determination of the young people carrying out the project.   They report that despite some initial resistance to a project that offers only words, they are having success drawing people into the sessions.  Participants report relief from some of their symptoms, and most importantly, they say they are sharing the skills they’ve  learned with family and friends.  For instance many participants report that they do the breathing and other self-soothing exercises nightly with their partners and children.

We would very much like to expand the project and train at least 10 more mental health workers in late-June.  To do that we need to find the additional funding, most of which will go to paying Haitians who staff the project.

An AFD psycholgist, and lay mental health worker lead a workshop for kids at a camp in Tabarre

Summary of objectives

  • To quickly and efficiently provide free basic mental health education and coping skills to residents of Port-au-Prince IDP camps
  • To develop an effective, culturally-appropriate protocol for presenting mental health education, coping skills, and relaxation techniques in a group setting and to evaluate the effectiveness of this model in reducing symptoms of PTSD and depression among recipients of the intervention AND among the lay mental health workers implementing the intervention.
  • To provide practical training and employment to young Haitian high school and college grads.
  • To create a sustainable system of lay mental health provision which will ultimately be maintained entirely by Haitian organizations and workers.
  • To establish a safe and efficient pathway for US volunteer mental health professionals who will provide ongoing training to lay mental health workers.  (All foreign volunteers will pay or raise money to cover their expenses.  Any funds raised by the Aristide Foundation for this project go directly to project expenses in Haiti. )

If you would like to support this work tax-deductible donations can be made here:

Or mail checks to: Aristide Foundation, PO Box 490271, Key Biscayne, Florida 33149

All donations are tax deductible and will be acknowledged.

For more information on the the Lay Mental Health Worker Project and on volunteer opportunities for international mental health professionals wishing to support this project please visit:

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