by Laura Flynn
On May 20th I sat down with ten young recently trained lay mental health-workers in the Aristide Foundation for Democracy’s Soulaje Lespri Moun project, to hear how the new project was going. In April these young people received training from a group of social workers from the University of Michigan. (Read an Account of this work by Leah James on the Huffington Post)
For the past eight weeks they’ve have been conducting mental health sessions in two refugee camps in Port-au-Prince. On the day we met in the courtyard of the foundation one-by-one they raised a hand to offer some testimony about the work they were doing.
Most described an initially rough reception in the camps, where most people in Port-au-Prince are still living in conditions that can only be described as inhuman. People are hungry and understandably skeptical about a project that offers mere words. Over time the Mental Health Workers had made inroads, and some of the people who had initially been most skeptical were now regulars at the sessions, or regularly brought new people to participate. Several told stories about people who were drinking or doing drugs to escape the grief and the trauma, and who had came back to say they’d stopped, they would come to talk instead. Many, many people returned to tell them they slept better after participating in the sessions, and after doing the regular breathing and self-soothing exercises that are a key component to the trainings. Some participants reported headaches or body aches were eased, and many people described improved relations with their families.
One woman who came to a session had been estranged from her husband since the quake. Part of the instructions in the mental health workshop is to go home and do the relaxation exercises with your family each night. Despite the estrangement, this woman had taken the direction to heart and so sought out her husband in the camp were both were living. She taught him the breathing and relaxation exercises she had learned – this in turn led to a reconciliation, which was then celebrated by the whole camp.