By Bianca Silva

For Dr. Guerda Nicolas, a professor at the University of Miami and an executive member of the nonprofit organization Ayiti Community Trust, she has always been invested in addressing the needs of the human mind as well as the needs of Haiti through the organization. Nicolas speaks to The Haitian Times on her achievements in psychology and being a part of Ayiti Community Trust

What led to your interest in psychology and mental health?

I have always wanted to work with kids and families and thought that I would be a pediatrician.  But then I was not interested in the medical aspect of health and healing. I took an introduction to psychology class and was transformed by the link between the mind and body and the significant importance of the brain in all aspects of our lives.  

How did you get involved with Ayiti Community Trust organization?

Ayiti Community Trust is the result of over 25 years traveling monthly to Haiti [and] engaging in various grant funded projects in mental health and education. It became clear to me that Haiti was a place full of projects but without any clear sustainable development plans. A good friend, Pierre Imbert and I started looking at ways that these projects were funded and noticed that they are mostly funded by external sources and without any ongoing support or funding for the most part. As a result, well intended and impactful projects tend to end before achieving their proposed outcomes. This gave birth to the idea of a community foundation that is based on an endowment model to be focused on grant-making to organizations in Ayiti within three interconnected pillars:  Environment, Entrepreneurship, and Civic Education. We co-founded the organization three years ago, after spending years researching the model and learning from other countries that established a similar model.

Have there been any challenges with establishing the ACT given that it’s still a relatively new organization?

ACT is a community foundation based on an endowment model. Thus, our primary focus has been on building the endowment. That is not always easy to sell to people who are used to charity giving to implement projects and people who don’t always understand the strategy of endowments. As a result, we have spent a significant amount of time on communicating and educating people within our community about philanthropy and the importance of creating a fund that will exist in perpetuity.

Mental health continues to be seen as a stigma in communities of color, including the Haitian community. What more do you think can be done to end the stigma of mental health within the Haitian community?

Shifting the narrative of people within our communities have been a challenge. I have been at it for the past 30 years and I must say that I am seeing some significant improvements.  

I think that the way people in our community have been exposed to mental health is not about health but more about mental illness, and there is a significant difference between the two.  Focusing on mental health is about working on the issues prior to them becoming an illness. However, whenever people talk about mental health, they give examples of mental illness and not about mental health.  Thus, people think that in order for you to address your mental health you must be mentally ill, “moun fou”. 
As such, the idea of seeking services for such things as stress, grief, relationship issues, job challenges, deciding about career choices, divorces, etc, does not immediately lead to seeking services.  We need to shift the focus from one of mental illness to one of mental health and thus applied to everyone and not just to “moun fou.”  The 2010 earthquake served as a process of shifting that narrative as many people were impacted mentally by such a massive devastation and forced everyone, irrespective of income or education levels to see the importance of our mental well-being.

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