With efforts in Haiti currently focusing on basic necessities and medical emergencies, the stage is set for a mental health epidemic. Lack of food, water, shelter and medical attention has left little time and effort for grieving or for psychological treatment. David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, researches post-traumatic stress disorder and in a recent interview shed some light on what we should expect in the coming months in Haiti.
Half of the Haitian population will eventually show some signs of PTSD or depression, expects Spiegel, who has received brain and immuno-imaging grant funding from the Dana Foundation in the past. Witnessing deaths or severe injuries, as well as dealing with disease, hunger, dehydration and violence, are all stressors that lead to PTSD, he points out. The loss of a daily routine that included loved ones, friends, work and school, along with a lack of identification or proper burial for many quake casualties, can contribute to the onset of depression.
Symptoms of PTSD typically begin no less than a month after a trauma, Spiegel says. That means that there is still time for emotional support and organized mental health relief. The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder lists cognitive and exposure therapy, medication, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and counseling as some potential treatments for PTSD. According to news reports, thousands of volunteers have shown up in Haiti on their own without clear direction or organization. Although these people have shown compassion to grieving children and adults and are doing their best to offer emotional support, they are not the mental health professionals that many Haitians currently need.
Spiegel points out that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Virginia, trauma symptoms resolved pretty quickly because of an abundance of resources offering emotional and social support to onlookers and victims. The situation in Haiti, on the other hand, more closely resembles the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which a delayed response by the government increased feelings of despondency and desperation. “I expect plenty of that in Haiti,” Spiegel says, “since the government has all but evaporated.”