Skip to main content

Social workers will play important role in Haiti relief efforts

By Susan White

Long before a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, social workers were already among the countless humanitarian workers and aid organizations attending to the impoverished country’s physical and emotional needs. In the months ahead, these same workers will play an even more vital role as extensive efforts to rebuild shattered infrastructure and lives begin.

Although treating the immediate physical needs of Haiti’s sick and injured remains a top priority, providing needed psychological first aid must also be a part of growing relief efforts and the kind of assistance that social workers are well-equipped to offer, said Joanne Caye, a UNC School of Social Work clinical assistant professor. Research has shown that such mental health assistance, especially within the first four to six weeks of a disaster, can help survivors reduce their chances of developing acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Caye, co-author of, “When Their World Falls Apart: Helping Families and Children Manage the Effects of Disasters.”

“What this means is providing people with accurate information, listening to their needs, letting them know that what they are experiencing is normal and giving them hope. That’s what psychological first aid does,” Caye said. “Some people may ask, ‘What good does that do?’ But the research tells us that … with a therapeutic response fairly early on, people will be able to gain some sense of control over their lives.”

Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, much of Haiti has been mired in chaos. The catastrophe disabled most of the country’s already worn or damaged infrastructure, including roads and seaport, hampering efforts to get medical supplies, food and water to quake victims. According to media reports, the death toll is expected to rise to at least 200,000 in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince, with thousands more presumed dead around the country and close to 200,000 more injured. Nearly 1 million people have been left homeless in Port-au-Prince, and thousands of others are reportedly living in squalor in makeshift camps. Billions of dollars are needed to rebuild the capital city, and efforts to construct tent cities for quake refugees are reportedly still weeks away.

Shelter – even temporary but close to home – can help children and adults retain a sense of normalcy, a lesson researchers learned firsthand following Hurricane Katrina, said Caye, who served in 2007 as a co-director for the “New Orleans Recovery Initiative,” a rebuilding project through the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Although thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents were evacuated to the Houston Astrodome, many of these evacuees were unable to immediately find other housing and in the interim, adopted the astrodome as their “new home.” When these families were forced to leave, many were “re-traumatized” as if they were physically losing their houses once again, Caye explained.

“So if people can be kept relatively close to where their homes are, they don’t go through that,” she explained.

For Haiti’s children, many of whom lost parents and their homes, the reality of the catastrophic event may be difficult to resolve, Caye said. Social workers can help children deal with the emotions that even adults find hard to face, she said.

“One of the big things we know is that children look to adults in terms of how they should respond to a situation, especially younger kids,” she explained. “But if there has been a significant loss, we know that sometimes adults can try and act like they’re not upset or try to shield a child from that loss. And in some instances, that’s not very helpful because it can give kids the impression that they’re not allowed to grieve or to get angry.”

Social workers can assist parents with interpreting cues from their children, including depression that may initially mask itself as moodiness, irritability or rebelliousness, Caye said.

“Understanding a child’s development – where kids are and what that means to them cognitively, emotionally and physically – is so critical when you’re doing this (type of emergency aid),” Caye added. “You have to be able to connect with where that kid is not where you are.”