PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — In early June, Jean Ronald Duperval was forced to flee his burning house at gunpoint. Rival gangs moved door to door in broad daylight, emptying his entire neighborhood in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
“I keep having flashbacks,” says 12-year-old Jean, recalling the dead bodies he saw strewn on the ground. “It’s kind of hard to talk about.”
Mental health is typically sidelined in Haiti. In 2017, a World Health Organization report found there was fewer than one psychiatrist or psychologist for every 100,000 people and no reported child psychiatrists. But a surge in gang violence this year has exposed the trauma experienced by children as families amass in displacement camps.
Volunteers are trying to fill the chronic gap in psychological care. At a sports center-turned-shelter in Carrefour, a suburb in western Port-au-Prince, they run weekly games, art and storytelling sessions with more than 400 children. It’s an attempt to support young people at a time when many are reporting insomnia, anxiety and nightmares.
“The children have been through trauma, but there is still hope for them,” says Lucinda Laguerre, coordinator of the Mouvement des Femmes Visionnaires d’Haïti, a longstanding women’s group that has turned its attention to children and mental health this year.
Since early June, around 20 of its volunteers, including two psychologists, have worked with young people at the makeshift camp. A cavernous auditorium that once hosted volleyball tournaments is now crammed with around 300 families, their sleeping mats and water buckets lined side by side.
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Jean, who shelters at the center with his family, says the workshops have helped him make friends and feel “less alone.” But he is desperate to go home. “All I want is to get back to the life I had before. I miss my neighborhood and my friends.”
The Ministry of Public Health and Population didn’t respond to requests for comment. But earlier this year René Domersant Jr., the ministry’s head of mental health, said in an interview that the government recognizes the shortcomings of mental health provision in Haiti. “Mental health is neglected in Haiti, certainly,” he said at the time. “We do not invest enough, but we make pleas to have the minimum to improve it.”
Even basic needs are proving hard to meet at the squeezed camps. Jude Edouard Pierre, the mayor of Carrefour, says the situation is especially critical for children. “It is unacceptable and appalling that children have to wash themselves and sleep next to adults,” he says. “The state needs to take action.”
But there has been little official intervention in Haiti, where years of political instability and natural disasters have derailed government services. The country still relies heavily on international aid and nongovernmental organizations at times of crisis.
The July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse triggered a new power vacuum, plunging the Caribbean country of 11 million people into further turmoil. An estimated 95 gangs operate in Port-au-Prince, according to a June report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The now near-daily clashes between competing gangs have forced thousands of Haitians out of their homes.
In August, Prime Minister Ariel Henry said the country needed around $800,000 to rehouse displaced families. Few had been moved from the sports center in Carrefour at the time of this writing. During a television broadcast in late October, Henry also tried to reassure Haitians that his government was cracking down on gangs. But violence has persisted.
In April, the gang warfare led UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, to warn that children had increasingly become the targets of armed gangs. A report from the agency pointed to a 62% increase in armed assaults reportedly involving criminal gangs that affected women and children between September 2020 and February 2021. The incidents included killings, injuries, rapes and kidnappings.
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At the Carrefour sports center, Gutenberg Destin, a civil protection coordinator from the Ministry of Interior and Territorial Communities, helps to manage the work of aid agencies. Destin, himself a volunteer, says the children “are now in a calm and safer environment.” But he points to looming problems. Most schools were due to reopen in October, but many have closed down again due to the daily fighting. Families also need to be rehoused before their children can be assigned new schools.
A 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August brought new troubles to Haitians, more than half of whom are estimated to live below the World Bank’s poverty line. A lack of government funding and coordination has left many people dependent on donations and volunteers. But donations are beginning to wane, says Pierre, the Carrefour mayor.
The government’s Institute of Social Welfare and Research did not respond to a request for comment.
Young people affected by the ongoing conflict typically show symptoms of insomnia as well as anxiety and speech difficulties, says Charlesson Talleyrand, a psychologist with the Organisation des Coeurs pour le Changement des Enfants Démunis d’Haïti, a charity that works with children in western Port-au-Prince.
“It will take more than two or three sessions of counseling to help them overcome their trauma,” he says. “What they need is long-term therapy.”