PORT-AU-PRINCE – Ten years later, Haiti still bears the scars from the powerful earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation on Jan. 12, 2010, killing 316,000 people and leaving survivors to deal with the physical and psychological trauma caused by the worst disaster in the country’s history.
Between 4,000 and 7,000 people underwent amputations following the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, which injured more than 350,000 people in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
The majority of amputees have had to deal with discrimination, as well as problems in obtaining basic services and jobs.
At a hot school in the heart of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, teacher Nirva Saint-Louis tells EFE about her long journey back to work after losing her left foot in the killer quake.
“Some students were able to escape after the first temblor. Two others and I didn’t. In the second temblor, the school’s roof collapsed on us. I spent the night in the rubble, I used my mobile phone to call my family so they could come and get me,” the teacher said.
After being pulled out of the rubble, Saint-Louis spent time at several hospitals, sought treatment abroad and ended up having to face the reality that her foot injuries worsened during the time she spent immobilized in a chair.
“After getting several negative (opinions), I finally agreed to the amputation,” Saint-Louis said, adding that with the help of relatives, health professionals and psychologists she finally accepted herself.
Saint-Louis’s case is rare in Haiti, a country where being an amputee has always carried a social stigma.
After the earthquake, this situation has worsened and, in many cases, discrimination has spread to include an amputee’s entire family and their socio-professional environment.
For amputees without an education, it is almost impossible to find a job and many of them have taken to the streets of Port-au-Prince since 2010 to beg for money from passersby.
Clinical psychologist Nathalie Coicou, a member of the Mental Health Initiative in Haiti (ISMA), said people who lived through the devastating earthquake went into a “state of acute stress” in the days following the disaster due to anxiety or in reaction to the great anguish they experienced.
“The Jan. 12 earthquake not only shook the ground, but it also changed the psychological-mental health situation in Haiti. The political leaders have become aware of the gaps that exist in terms of the national strategy, human, material and financial resources in the mental health area,” said Coicou, who has experience working with victims after the earthquake.
Doctors Without Borders said Friday that in the first weeks after the earthquake, at least 40,000 people received psychological or psychiatric care from its specialists.
Survivors can suffer from post-traumatic stress and depression in the medium or long term following tragic events in their lives, and earthquake survivors experienced other problems, such as reliving the disaster.
“Ten years after the earthquake, the state, the institutions and the Haitian people continue to be marked by the impact of the earthquake. Ten years after the earthquake, we continue dealing with a traumatized state,” clinical psychologist Daniel Derivois said.
The problems are made worse by the general lack of resources in Haiti’s public health system, which receives just 1 percent of the national budget, and the limited number of facilities for providing mental health services to children and teenagers.
“The different studies done up to six years after the earthquake agreed on at least two points – the trauma rate continues to be high. The resiliency rate is also high,” the expert said.
Derivois, who holds a doctorate in psychology, said no one should expect a miraculous solution.
“Everything is a priority in Haiti and we do not know where to start. But everyone should start with the same state – become involved collectively beyond the individual and well beyond the visible, immediate and concrete results of the here and now, so they can think about long-term projects,” Derivois said.