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Social and Psychological Well Being: Alternative Health and Healing in Haiti (Part II)

U.S. soldiers guard the Haitian Ministry of Heatlh. Clearly, Haiti needs a whole new health system. Photo by Tory Field.

Lenz Jean-Francois is a social psychologist. He is also a professor and provisional head of the psychology department of the School of Social Sciences of the State University of Haiti. He talks about how local organizations and institutions are using social psychology in Haiti’s post-earthquake context to help survivors heal.

Haitians’ humanity is threatened today. If there is a battle that Haitians don’t want to lose, it’s their humanity. Each one is looking for recognition that he or she is present, that he or she is among the living.

The difficult situation that Haitians are going through today makes them more fragile. But it can also be a force.

How do we encourage people to reclaim control of their lives [after the catastrophe]? How do they rebuild their control, reestablish their ties with others, and find their confidence so they can resolve their problems?

In Haitian families, the way they socialize their kids, they give a lot of importance to the capacity for endurance. They teach kids to always be ready for a tough situation, to struggle to hold onto their dignity.

In this adversity we’ve been living under since January 12, many people have been having the experience, individually and collectively, of realizing “I didn’t know I had all this strength, all this capacity. I thought I would crack. I thought I would collapse.” When people realize that they have a government which is extremely weak, and that they have together - with their fingers, with their little hammers, their machetes, their sticks – saved so many neighbors, so many family members… they realize that they have so much strength.

We say that what’s positive within the population, build on that. We’re saying that we’re not only rebuilding ourselves, we’re rebuilding our nation. Our slogan is ‘Rebuild Our House.’ We’re promoting collective resilience and tying it to a political vision.

We in social psychology are saying: Let’s recognize our strength, individually and collectively.
We have the strength to continue, to construct our country, to do it ourselves. Gandhi said, certain things have to be done by Indians. When they do something with their own hands, they come to believe in themselves. The Haitian people have to do things with their own hands so they can know they have the strength and the capacity, so they can say, “This was my dream.”

As long as people are depending on others, that’s going to challenge them. There are certain organizations that live off of victims; they have to have victims to survive. We say, instead, that Haitian people have their strength, their capacity: reinforce it.

If you do something for someone who has the confidence to do it him or herself, you make them more dependent, you make them lose their self-confidence. Let them valorize themselves. If people have the capacity to make their food, let them do it. It allows them to have control over their lives, over their environment.

The social psychology that we’re using [in today’s context] has five steps. First is verbalization. Haitians like to talk. We let people express themselves and talk about their experiences. Second is understanding and expressing their emotional reaction. Third is discourse about the false explanations of causes behind the event, that religious people are putting out. We objectify the earthquake as a natural event, historicize it, let people recognize its prior existence in their own history, and do comparison with other earthquakes that are happening all over. The next point is acceptance. You can’t change the earthquake, but how do you change your relationship with it? This is not resignation. Humans have an extraordinary capacity of adaptation. Last is what we call ‘Rebuild the House.’ This is projecting ourselves as actors into a positive future that we ourselves will construct.

That’s where this psychological approach sits: letting people retake control of their lives and letting them know they are the actors in advancing the people. We say to people, “Believe in your strength. In your capacity to rebuild this country.”

Their point of resistance is in conserving their humanity. They prove that capacity each day, the way they’re surviving since January 12.

Thanks to Gina Vrignaud and Ricardo Toussaint for their help with this interview.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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