Why is it that in our Haitian society seeking mental counseling has always been given a negative connotation? Not only do we not believe in mental health, we also assume that the person seeking help for his or her mental condition has got to be “crazy” because, in our minds, mental counseling is for “crazy” people. Well, today, I am writing this piece to challenge and refute such mindset.
One does NOT need to be “crazy” to seek mental counseling. Since mental health is a component of our overall health, the same way we would go for a physical on a regular basis, our mental health needs that same level of attention or care.
To be aware of the importance of maintaining one’s mental health, to know that mental health is an integral part of one’s overall health, that requires a certain level of education and social sophistication, which the majority of the people do not have.
Some of the things we believe in are really having a toll on the way we care for ourselves. The notion that mentally challenged people must be possessed by some type of a demonic spirit is just unfounded, baseless and ludicrous. Because of such ridiculousness, we are facing a community health challenge, where many mentally ill people in our society are going with their illnesses “undiagnosed” or misdiagnosed.
As a result of a death in the family, for example, a person could be displaying signs and symptoms of severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or whatever the case may be. What do we say of the person’s condition? We say that “sé mò a k ap fè l” or the dead is doing that to him or her. Sometimes, if the person has some known or unknown ties with the Vodou religion, we would hold that some ancestral spirits or “lwas” are persecuting him or her because they have been neglected. And the remedy to that is to call for a Vodou ceremony if the person is a Vodou believer, or engage in all sorts of prayer rituals to “exorcise” the demons if the person is a Christian. Meanwhile, the person’s condition is deteriorating.
Furthermore, there is this stigma we attach to mental illness in our society. We look at that as shameful, disgraceful and appalling. When someone is mentally ill in most of our families, like a family member who contracts HIV, we tend to vilify that person because in our eyes he or she is a disgrace, a subject of shame to our family. What do we do to handle the situation? We try to keep it into hiding as much as we can or send the person away to a member of the family in the countryside. Hence, that person is doomed; he may never get to receive any type of treatment whatsoever for his or her treatable condition.
Growing up in Gonaives, specifically near the community marketplace, I had seen it all -schizophrenic patients, bipolar patients, delusional patients, etc… Most of these people were not from the city; they probably came from the outskirts of town. It would be fair to say that that part of the city was the dumpster for mentally challenged people. Some of these individuals were extremely violent and represented a danger to themselves and others. They should have been admitted, not left unattended to be roving around as though nothing was wrong with them. Then again, if we were to admit them, where would we be putting them, especially when we know that the city’s only public hospital –Providence Hospital -was not equipped with a psychiatric ward to cater to their needs?
The January the 12th earthquake makes matters even more complicated than they already were. It is going to have a negative or devastating long-term effect on the psyche of our nation. Having to deal with the toll of the disaster -300,000 human lives wiped out, thousands of physically paralyzed or traumatized citizens, over one million people living in tent cities with no hopes of a better tomorrow, women being raped on a daily basis, the list goes on and on and on… -this is not going to be a simple task.
There cannot possibly be a Haitian society without the Haitian people. So to rebuild Haiti is to rehabilitate its people physically and mentally. And to mentally rehabilitate the people, these misconceptions surrounding mental health talked about earlier must be addressed comprehensively and systematically.
How can you change the mindset of the people to make them more receptive to the realness of mental illness? In other words, how can you effectively treat someone’s mental illness when that person deeply and strongly believes that his or her condition is the result of some type of unexplained supernatural occurrence? Those are some very steep challenges health care professionals (mental health experts), the Haitian authorities and the international community must tackle should they really want to rebuild the country as they promised to do.
Finally, one does not need to be “crazy” to seek mental counseling. Mental illnesses are real; they have nothing to do with supernatural occurrences. In my opinion, supernatural explanation to mental illness is the easiest way to satisfy our ignorance or limited knowledge. We, medical professionals and educators, have a lot of work to do to challenge these myths and misconceptions killing our people. If education is the key to and essence of life, ignorance is the poison that can destroy it.