Haiti crisis poses challenges, even for those who don’t seem likely victims

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As a mental health professional with world-wide credentials, Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia has spent years training others how to respond in time of crisis.

With conditions worsening by the day in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, her years of teaching and volunteering have taken on new relevance.

The Kyrene Corridor resident’s volunteer work is part of the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program, an international initiative that trains mental health professionals to treat trauma among survivors of natural and man-made disasters.

In 2008 Adler-Tapia traveled to Nairobi with trainers and her daughter, Mauria, a Corona del Sol freshman and junior-varsity soccer player, shortly after the post-election violence there.

“It was horrible, horrible tribal fighting,” she said. “And a lot of people were killed and burned.”

In November Adler-Tapia took her second volunteer trip to Nairobi, Kenya, supporting EMDR’s efforts to help communities become self-sufficient.

Now, as Haiti struggles to recover from the disaster that already has claimed hundreds of thousand of lives, Adler-Tapia holds valuable insight into the priorities that humanitarian aid must now address.

Haiti’s situation, she notes, is similar to others in which communities have experienced man-made or natural disasters.

First, she points out, people must have their safety and basic physical needs met, a requirement that also was true for those who experienced Katrina and 9/11.

And, she added, “As soon as we can, we need to get in with mental health services to prevent the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Special populations have their own special needs, she noted.

“For children, safety and basic needs, including contact with an adult caregiver, are priorities,” Adler-Tapia said.

Initially, she points out, play and singing seem to be universal activities all children enjoy, and these help with stabilization after a disaster.

Just like the earthquakes in China, fires in Australia, war zones in Palestine, Gaza and Rwanda, and the post-election violence (EMDR) responded to in Nairobi, humanitarian assistance volunteers not only provide training and support for local professionals, but they themselves also need mental health services.

Adler-Tapia said that, in Nairobi, EMDR volunteers trained some of the United Nations psychologists who provide mental health services to the U.N. workers.

The professionals in Haiti working in search and rescue right now will also benefit from services because of vicarious trauma, she said.
For U.S. families untouched directly by conditions in Haiti, she noted, research indicates that watching televised coverage of disasters can contribute to vicarious trauma for individuals, especially children.

“This is a time to pull loved ones closer and talk about feelings regarding what we’re seeing and feeling,” she said.
“Children have questions and concerns they don’t know how to articulate, so adults can ask. Don’t assume that because they don’t say anything that everything is OK. It never hurts to check in about how others are feeling about Haiti and other disasters.”

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