The Haitian Flag Day Planning Committee of NJ, Inc. (HFDPCNJ) is hosting its 2nd Annual Pen Ak Kafe: A Discussion on Mental Health on May 21 at the Shear Ambition Barbershop & Beauty Salon in Elizabeth, NJ.

Pen Ak Kafe (Bread and Coffee) are two important staples in the Haitian culture as Haiti is known for its rich flavorful natural resource, the coffee bean. If you grew up in a Haitian household, you had neighbors, relatives, and family friends who visited your parents to discuss Haitian history, current events, politics, religion, and education over pen ak kafe in the comfort of your kitchen,” said Marline D. Edmond, MA, chairwoman of Haitian Flag Day Planning Committee of NJ, Inc. “It was an authentic and vibrant feeling to listen to the debates, arguments, and wealth of knowledge from the next room.”

“Pen Ak Kafe is just that; a modern-day conversation in local Haitian owned barbershop by everyone’s favorite community barber ‘Scotty’,” said Marline D. Edmond, MA, chairwoman of Haitian Flag Day Planning Committee of NJ, Inc.

During their first Pen Ak Kafe event, participants shared their views on mental health and expressed the need for various kinds of dialogue to educate the community about breaking the cycles of silence and taboo that have been passed down through generations.

“ It was a safe space for healing, compassion, understanding, change, and growth,” Edmond said.

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the World Health Organization (WHO) looked at the Culture and Mental Health in Haiti and recognized a rise in depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the Haitian population.

“The Haitian concept of dépression is also usually expressed in terms of somatic symptoms: feeling empty or heavy-headed, insomnia, distractibility (i.e. “my head is not there”), fatigue, low energy, and poor appetite,” according to WHO officials.

“Depression is not considered a mental illness to the Haitian people, but a [general state] due to physical illness, a Voudou curse, excessive worrying, obsessive preoccupation with life, or trauma,” Edmond said. “When the Haitian community experiences physical or emotional symptoms, they are often unaware if it’s a mental illness.

“I have seen Haitian clients minimize their symptoms in the presence of a healthcare professional because of the fear of being on medication or hearing about a new medical diagnosis.”

Language barriers and lack of cultural competency among mental health professions add to the stigmatized perception of depression in the Haitian community. Research shows patients are the most comfortable sharing their stories in their native tongue, versus their second language or through an interpreter.

“The more we can provide the Haitian community with education around mental health that is culturally sensitive,” Marline Francois-Madden, LCSW, CEO of Hearts Empowerment Counseling Center said, “ the easier it will get to break the shame around seeking professional help.”
The  2nd Annual Pen Ak Kafe: A Discussion on Mental Health takes place 52 Jefferson Ave, Elizabeth, NJ 07201 from 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

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