Capracare community health worker. Photo Credit: Capracare

By Vania Andrè

Smith Altema was in class waiting for an exam to start, when he decided to step out to take a short bathroom break. Moments later he could feel the ground moving under his feet. When he looked to where he had been only minutes before, he saw the school building flattened, with his classmates and professor still inside.  That day he and other survivors found an empty field near the school to stay overnight as they waited for the aftershocks to pass. 

“It was a horrible experience for me,” Altema said. “The images you saw, the dead bodies…it was a lot.” On top of dealing with the trauma from the quake, Altema also lost his girlfriend of seven years in the earthquake. 

“This was one of the worst things that could have happened to me in my life,” he said. “This was an experience that marked our souls and would stay with us forever.”

When the earthquake hit Haiti, Jean Pierre-Louis’ nonprofit Capracare was less than a year old. He and his team had already planned to travel to Haiti for a professional development retreat for the organization’s community health workers, but changed their focus after news of the quake fell. 

“We had to change the whole mission of the trip and change our agenda to mental health,” Pierre-Louis, president and CEO of Capracare said. The nonprofit founded in 2009 develops sustainable community health programs for children and their families living in Haiti.

“I knew [mental health] was a topic that was heavily ignored.”

Pierre-Louis had tried in the past to work with the Haitian community on mental health wellness, however, the reception was less than favorable. 

“My grandmother’s first six children died, and I thought, wow, what kind of support did she have?” he said. “I’m imagining how do you lose six kids, without having a mental breakdown, and there were no mental health services available.”

So he began to survey others in the community to find out whether it was common for Haitians to face such severe stress without professional help,  and to gauge whether they would be receptive to services. 

“Everyone would say, ‘oh no, it’s ok. We don’t need that type of support’ because they didn’t truly understand what mental health is,” he says. “It ended up not being a big focus area because they were relying on support from family, from the community, from church. 

“But, when the Haiti earthquake happened, then the light bulb went off — ‘I’m not crazy. This is serious.’ That’s what triggered us to go back to that same community to provide psychological first aid.”

They were in Haiti within three weeks of the earthquake. Shortly after,  they were introduced to Altema. 

He had a difficult time talking about his experiences with the earthquake. 

“At first, I didn’t want to talk about what happened,” he said. “It hurt me a lot to speak about it.”

However, after he came across Pierre-Louis and his team of mental health specialists, he started to open up to the idea of speaking to a psychologist — something he thought was reserved only for moun fou (crazy people).

“Before the earthquake, I thought mental health was about treating people who had problems in their head…crazy people,” he said. “That was my perception.”

Ten years later, his view of mental health had turned on its head.

“I understand it more now,” Altema, who’s now a doctor and runs CapraCare’s Haiti medical division, said. “Mental health isn’t [only] about people who have a mental illness or are considered crazy. Mental health [services] are here for everyone in general. Regardless of who you are, you need mental health [services.]

“It’s very important. Everywhere should have a psychologist,” he said. “In schools, in churches…everywhere.”  Continue reading.

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