MENTAL HEALTH AS PERCEIVED BY MOST HAITIANS

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.

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10 comments on “MENTAL HEALTH AS PERCEIVED BY MOST HAITIANS

  1. “If education is the key to and essence of life, ignorance is the poison that can destroy it”.
    You’ve nailed it again Emann, nothing in there for me to add other than how do we educate the masses? How do we bring the awareness to health educators, nursing students, and the government? Who will be responsible to funds this mental health department/ housing? What about the medication? Will we patnered with pharmaceutical abroad, how do we go about this.

    I am sort of tired of the rhetoric, I want to see plan and actions for whoever is willing to implement it. Sometimes your vision can become reality, if we choose to share it for those who wish and has the mean to do so.

  2. Emman, I won’t even try to entertain you with a full explanation; but I’ll say this…as someone that claimed to be graduating from Nursing, I wouldn’t expect that kind of article from you. Check out Maslow’s Theory and rewrite your article.

    So, they need to tackle PTSD without first fulling the basic needs, such as food, shelter and water? When was the last time you visited Haiti?

    • Wilkins,

      I know you will be re-reading the piece, but just to make it easy on you, it is not about setting a “priority list” for the reconstruction of Haiti. It is, rather, about the myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health in the Haitian society and how those, if not being properly addressed, could negatively effect the rebuilding of the country in a long run. I hope this help. Thanks for the comment.

      • Once again, this is the least of Haiti’s problems. Here in America, they still don’t understand the full scope of mental disorders. Governments and private sectors only started paying for mental health care in the 1970’s.

        Indeed, the myths is there; nevertheless, this is a problem that easily be fixed with proper psychiatrist hospitals and education. Didn’t England once believed in witches? A few people in their population still do but it is no longer a problem in England.

        Almost a million people live in shelters, with 90% don’t have a steady job. What did Maslow’s Theory talks about again?

  3. This is a great article. I don’t think anyone realizes that occupational/physical therapy and psychiatric services are some of the greatest needs in Haiti and will remain so. I could not agree more. We need to spread these words.

    • “I don’t think anyone realizes that occupational/physical therapy and psychiatric services are some of the greatest needs in Haiti and will remain so.”

      This is the highlight of the entire conversation. You are right on target, M. Like I said, to rebuild Haiti is to rehabilitate/reconstruct its people physically and mentally. There is no functioning human society without functioning (physically and mentally) human beings.

  4. Nicely written E. Providing effective mental health services to Haitians will remain a challenge unless a re-education of the people is initiated. It must begin with the children, whereas they are encouraged to share their feelings without the fear of being labeled “different”. If perceptions change about mental health, there would be a significant decrease in socially unacceptable (deviant) behaviors in Haiitan society. There is no doubt that a change in the adult population’s view on the concept will not be easy due to the preconceived notions that have been passed on from generation to generation. As you eloquently pointed out, some severe mental illnesses are often associated with craziness by most Haitians. As I sat in a therapeutic session with a Haitian mother of two diagnosed with dementia some years ago, she disclosed that her mother was responsible for her condition. Although the diagnosis confirmed the illness, she remained certain that “wanga” was to blame. Again, nicely written. Enjoyed reading this piece.

  5. If we are not willing to heal ourselves and reconstruct our mind and our body, how are we going to be able to discuss and act on reconstructing our community and our country. We have to be together -mind, body and soul – to live together – people community and country.

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