Understanding the Earhtquake’s Impact on Haiti

A close-up picture of a large crack in concrete pavement.Our human relationship with nature is somewhat of an enigma; it seems impossible to decipher whose impact is greater. We are able to tame and sculpt nature, altering it to match our needs. We shift the course of gigantic rivers, upbraid forests, and transform arid prairies into green metropolises. Our behaviors deplete the ozone, impact global temperatures, and dabble with finely tuned weather patterns, and yet the entire entity of Nature is beyond our reach. We still remain at Nature’s mercy. The tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti starkly demonstrates this reality.

So how does a severe natural disaster like Haiti’s earthquake impact the psyche of the survivors? Fortunately, the field of natural disaster psychology has studied past calamities and puts forth some answers to this question. Unfortunately, the psychological impact can be quite wounding and pervasive.

It will come as no surprise that extreme anxiety and depressive reactions are common in survivors following a natural disaster. Often times the closer the survivor was to the epicenter and the more destruction the survivor witnessed (such as witnessing the collapse of a building), the more extreme the emotional reaction is. When this destruction includes witnessing the destruction of human life—i.e. hearing the screams of individuals trapped underneath rubble, seeing shorn off body parts, or watching failed rescue efforts, etc.—the likelihood that the survivor will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) increases dramatically.

For children who witness these events there is an added layer of fear. Many children who witness and survive such events develop increased fears of being separated from their loved ones/caregivers. This fear makes complete sense and is rather rational. The child has witnessed utter chaos and so needs to be physically close to her or his source of stability, the proverbial epicenter of her or his world. Not only does seeking out proximity to her or his caregiver provide emotional security, but it can also help ensure physical survival during any future aftershocks, collapses, or calamities.

It is also common for children to develop more and new fears (such as a fear of any rumbling sound or tall buildings), physical complaints (such as tummy aches, being sore or tired), and regress to a manner more typical for a younger child (returning to thumb sucking or baby talk). If a child experiences the death or loss of a loved one or friend, then grief and depression (versus anxiety and PTSD) tend to be the dominant responses.

Regardless of the dominant response—fear/anxiety based or depression/grief/sadness based—the severity of life-threatening situations following the natural disaster has profound impact upon the psychological wellbeing of both children and adults. If, in addition to the destruction and horror of the natural disaster, one has to fear for one’s survival or exert heroic efforts to remain safe, then the psychological toll of the disaster is magnified. This is one of the reasons why the problems the international community had in entering Haiti were so talked about and criticized. The longer it took for relief and relief workers to enter Haiti, the longer the survivors had to fight for and fear for their survival and safety.

Some experts point out that the accumulation of a survivor’s exposure to death and destruction is the biggest predictor of negative psychological impact. This concept is termed the dose-of-exposure curve and predicts that people in the most destroyed parts of Haiti will have the most severe (negative) psychological consequences.

Finally, just as the degree of destruction, death, and the un-gluing of society negatively impacts a survivor, the ability for survivors to join together and work towards survival, safety, meaning, purpose and even fleeting specks of harmony and beauty can begin the healing process, allowing for the resiliency within humans to shine forth.

© Copyright 2010 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Amy

    Amy

    February 4th, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    Every time I see stories on the news about this natural disaster it brings me to tears and I have no family or ties to Haiti. I can only imagine what the grief must be like for those who have lost friends and loved ones there and who may have no idea of their eventual fate. That must be so devastating not to mention the loss of hoes and other material goods that families had to work so hard for to begin with. It makes you wonder why things like this happen- and then you realize that is when there are no answers for why, only more questions. And what a horrible feeling to have to live with everyday. My prayers are certainly with this country as they strive to recover from this tragedy.

  • michael dennis

    michael dennis

    February 5th, 2010 at 4:13 AM

    The on-ground situation and pictures that we see of all the destruction is only a small fraction of the damage that has been done…the major part of the damage is in the minds and lives of the people there…having lost family members and everything that was their own is going to be very traumatic to say the least…there is going to be people committing suicides, slipping into depression and what not…

  • Pauline

    Pauline

    February 5th, 2010 at 5:57 AM

    It is hard to live in situations where we know we have no control over many events, but such is life. I hope that this is a nation that will be able to recover but I know that it will certainly take time for the healing process to be completed.

  • JEREMY

    JEREMY

    February 5th, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    ^^ Take time it will, Pauline. But what the donor nations can do is to ensure the setting up of counseling centres and other help centres that can actually guide people who have been affected by this fury of nature…

  • Delaney

    Delaney

    February 6th, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    There are so many ways that I feel compelled to help but I don’t know where to begin. Send money now or later? Try to donate my own time and services right now or wait until those who are there burn out and leave and there is a lack of care once again? No matter what decision you make it is a tough one and you are never really sure that you are making the right one. Right now I am trying to coordinate with my local Red Cross chapter to determine what is most needed and when would be the best time to give that will make the most impact. It is not necessarily the best solution but I think that is everyone were more responsible with their giving then the impact in a positive way of that giving could be felt and benefitted from for years to come.

  • suzanne

    suzanne

    February 8th, 2010 at 8:19 AM

    Just giving what you can when you can will go a long way toward helping heal this ravaged nation. And certainly prayers are always welcomed.

  • Caitlin

    Caitlin

    February 11th, 2010 at 8:48 AM

    The impact of the earthquake is really unimaginable at this point. It’s going to be extremely important to focus on the immediate and long-term needs of children in order to rebuild Haiti: http://bit.ly/bog2zz

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