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Leafless Trees and Spaceships

June 12, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps

After the earthquake, the Chinese government established displaced person camps to house the estimated five million people left homeless by the quake. Two of these camps, Xingfu Jiayuan camp and Xiangfengqiao camp, are located in Dujiangyan, a city about an hour outside of Chengdu. In Dujiangyan, the earthquake reduced many older buildings to rubble and caused schools to collapse, killing hundreds of children.

Today, I visited Xinfu Jiayuan and Xiangfengqiao with a team of psychologists from Sichuan Normal University and Southwest Normal University, where Mercy Corps had conducted Comfort for Kids trainings. Both camps have mental health centers, where these psychologists have been evaluating and treating children.

I spent the morning at Xingfu Jiayuan, where people live three-to-a-room in temporary, prefabricated housing. The camp has electricity, running water, flush toilets, public bathrooms and showers, a library, a hair salon and convenience stores. A karaoke stage was set up in a square.

At the camp's school, the curriculum includes a psychology class. The school's psychology teacher coordinates with the psychologists who staff the mental health center, reinforcing the treatment the students receive in one-on-one sessions.

The morning's work began when a psychologist escorted two children, a girl and a boy, from the school to the counseling center — a single room in a row of identical, prefabricated units. The girl wore a matching shirt and pants that looked dusty; the boy had dirt on his ears and mosquito-bitten legs.

The first part of the evaluation involved gathering biometric information from the children to determine the extent to which their stress manifested physically. Each child was asked to sit in front of a laptop, and to attach a clip to his or her ear. The clip measured the child's heart rate variability (HRV). One of the center's psychologists sat next to each child, as the computer played a visual readout of the child's heart rate.

Then the child was asked to watch a short animated cartoon on the computer. The cartoon began with a leafless tree before dawn. Over the course of the cartoon, the sun rose, the tree bloomed and a bird flew into the frame. One of the psychologists explained to me that the cartoon is a variety of "emotional visualizer," special software that produces an image that changes depending on the biometric information received from the sensor on the child's ear.

The animated cartoon ran smoothly with both children in that morning's first evaluation, but later I watched a child stare for five minutes at the leaf-less tree in the pre-dawn. The scene never changed.

"Why isn't the sun rising?" I asked the psychologist.

"Because he's anxious," she replied.

After the cartoon, the children were asked to draw pictures of trees, people and houses. One child drew a spaceship. After they completed their pictures, the psychologists asked the children to explain what they'd drawn. Throughout the activities, the psychologists sat at close proximity to the children, often laying an encouraging hand on the child's back.

When the evaluation ended, the psychologists gave the children their choice of books to take with them as a gift.

So far — a month after the earthquake — the psychologists have completed evaluations for most of the camp's hundreds of children.

"How many of the children have problems that are revealed by the evaluation?" I asked one of the team's psychologists.

"All the children display some symptoms of post-traumatic stress," he said.

The psychologists are awaiting official publication of the workbook, "My Earthquake Experience: 5/12 Wenchuan Earthquake," a supplement to the Comfort for Kids methodology in which the psychologists had been trained.

"The book is very good," one of the psychologists affirmed, thumbing through a photocopy of the book that she'd been given during the Mercy Corps training. "We just need the official copy to give these children." The book has just gone to press, and will be available for distribution in the next several days.