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Group addresses mental health needs of Haitian children

Haiti, February 15, 2010

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NPR's Tell Me More
February, 2010

In the weeks since the horrific earthquake that leveled much of Haiti's capital we've seen images of death and destruction and a few amazing rescues. But one aspect of the devastation that the television screen cannot capture is the psychological trauma of a generation of Haitian children who have experienced dramatic loss and serious injury. "Comfort for Kids" is a program developed by Mercy Corps, a non profit international humanitarian organization, and child care provider Bright Horizons. Its aim is to help Haitian children traumatized by the earthquake. Host Michel Martin talks with Griffen Samples, senior technical adviser of Comfort for Kids.

Listen to this audio interview by clicking here

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Its been almost a month since an earthquake leveled much of Haitis capital. Weve seen many images of suffering, but one aspect of the devastation which the screen cannot truly capture is the psychological trauma experienced by those who have suffered loss and serious injury. Today, we want to focus on an initiative designed to address the needs of children, in particular, the mental health needs of children. Comfort for Kids is a program developed by Mercy Corp, thats a nonprofit international humanitarian organization along with childcare provider Bright Horizons.

Griffen Samples is the senior technical advisor to the program and she joins us now from Port-au-Prince. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. GRIFFEN SAMPLES (Senior Technical Advisor, Comfort for Kids): Hey, its my honor and I appreciate the chance to help to your NPR listeners learn whats happening on the ground.

MARTIN: What are you trying to do?

Ms. SAMPLES: Mercy Corps, in partnership with Bright Horizons, after 9/11, developed a very simple messaging program that enables adults, parents, professionals, paraprofessionals to provide resilience in children so that they can minimize the number of children who need the scarce mental health resources that exist after a disaster.

MARTIN: And so what is exactly does that mean? Youre trying to what help the adults who are there help the kids.

Ms. SAMPLES: Thats exactly it. And we have a training program that we have effectively implemented in the U.S. after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina; aspects of the component were launched in Guatemala after Hurricane Stan. Weve used it in other earthquake responses in Peru and also in China.

MARTIN: And what does this training entail, I mean, this program weve done a lot of reporting on mental health issues and who gets those services, who doesnt get those services. And one of the things that seems to come up a lot is this whole question of culturally competent care; what represents comfort to some people, might not represent comfort to other people. And so one of the questions I have is what are some of the tools that youll be sharing with adults to try to help kids in this situation.

Ms. SAMPLES: We have a couple of things, Michel. The first thing is a very simple messaging training program. And with our trainings - weve piloted to already, weve trained just under 100 people - we look, at first, how are adults responding to the earthquake. Adults are expected to take care of children, thats normal in any culture. So, before we can get into how we can support children better, we say, well, you know - what are you seeing among yourselves? What are different behaviors that you are having yourself or maybe you see in your friends, in your family?

And normal adult reactions to a crisis, be it in earthquake or large natural disaster or 9/11, would be anxiety, fear, sleeping too much. For adults, there might be drinking too much or smoking too much. So, people tend to have normal anxiety-type reactions after a crisis and one of our key messages is to normalize those reactions. People may not know that those are simply normal adult reactions after a trauma.

MARTIN: Who are some of the adults who will receive this kind of training?

Ms. SAMPLES: That's a - its a key question. The training will be reaching out to two different groups. We will be partnering with a program thats under the aegis of the first lady, Madam Preval. She is hosting child spaces where children will be doing arts activities. Theyll be doing it for two-and-a-half hour sessions, three times a day, six days a week. So there will be a rotation of children. And so one group of work will be the mothers who have brought their children. You know, two-and-a-half hours is not enough time to go and do a lot. Traffic is crazy, crazy, can take an hour-and-a-half to get anywhere here.

The other groups weve worked with - the teachers, the nurses, the day-care workers. Weve had psychologists, weve had a very wide range in our pilots, already, will continue with that group as a second training population; and the parents as his own discreet training population.

MARTIN: What are some of the challenges of offering this kind of training in this particular setting? I mean, one of the things that occurs to me is, on 9/11, is devastating as it was, was confined to a relatively limited geographic area - you know, the worst physical damage was, you know, lower Manhattan or at the Pentagon. So, once you got away from those areas you could get basic services, you know what I mean - you could get food, you could get water, you could get shelter. But here, you know I mean, the damage is so widespread. So, can you just talk a little bit about what are some of the challenges of addressing psychological needs given the physical circumstances there?

Ms. SAMPLES: Sure, and I want to underscore - when we talk with people, local authorities, representatives with community, talking with the first lady and her colleagues - we do not provide mental health counseling, we do not provide therapy. What we provide is simple messaging in how adults, either parents or professionals or paraprofessionals, can promote resilience in children.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SAMPLES: Most children are inherently resilient. Children can bounce back way faster than adults, if they get the right support. Its very difficult for people who havent received training. You know, many people think children maybe showing bad behavior, so they maybe being just like ill-behaved; when in fact, what theyre demonstrating with their showing are normal reactions to trauma, by not knowing the difference between what was bad behavior in the normal times and the normal reaction to trauma after a crisis, parents and adults may not be responding appropriately.

MARTIN: How though, can you encourage parents to respond appropriately when theyre so devastated themselves? We cant isolate the trauma that the adults have experienced from thats what their children are experiencing.

Ms. SAMPLES: Youre absolutely right and thats why we always start our training saying, how are you? What youre doing to take care of yourself? And it gives them a chance to talk among themselves, because theyve been so busy. So, actually its a very informal training. Its more like a conversation that we hold.

MARTIN: How many people do you hope will get this training over the course of your time there? I dont know how long you plan to be there, but how long do you think the project will last.

Ms. SAMPLES: Michel, Mercy Corp is going to be help the long term. We have preliminary figures that say we would like to reach 1,500 people in the communities. So, church leaders, nurses, teachers, people who are key what we call key informants in the community. So, its the short-term response that we anticipate will be part of an ongoing program with Mercy Corp here in Haiti.

MARTIN: Griffen Samples is the senior technical advisor for Mercy Corp, Comfort for Kids. She was kind enough to join us by phone from Port-au-Prince, where she is working. Griffen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SAMPLES: My pleasure, my honor. Call back in two weeks so I can update you on how many and the reaction of more of the participants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHEL: Okay, well try. Thanks a lot.

Ms. SAMPLES: Best, bye.

MICHEL: Okay.