Mental Health in Haitian Society: The monster swept under the bed

Health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing” – and thus “not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

In our hierarchy of survival, and overall health, we often consider the first “layer” that is the physical as being the only layer essential to survival.

Notably, in under-developed countries where medical care can be scarce, the physical state is the most pressing of matters, since it seems to be the most useful tool for the average poor person who is overworked and unable to make ends meet. Even with the more privileged, - especially when it comes to black people – having to endure structured abuse for centuries has rendered a lot of them incapable of dealing with institutionally triggered or caused violence and trauma, outside of resignation and internalization. These toxic methods are then passed on to us as an intergenerational gift, gift wrapped with trauma.

In Haiti, a country still amidst a fight for various forms of liberation; parents attempt to thicken their children’s skin in the way struggle has harden theirs. The scars that tough love leave us with, are either seen as a necessary evil, or simply another characteristic of live. I think of a saying lower class/poor Haitians use in response to “How are you?”; - “Nou led, men nou la”, highlighting that whatever shape we have been left in, by disastrous storms, (I speak here of emotional or physical ones) we are nevertheless still standing – and that ultimately that is what’s important.

The saying itself isn’t ableism or disregarding other levels of complete health but it shows the mentalities that we cherish to make it through when there isn’t anything left to be grateful for. That is the resignation we over time come to prioritize over actual healing or consideration of any damage beyond physical/material.

This all begs the question, where do Haitian people with mental disabilities come in? Are they in their right to speak of mental health as – not a layer that can’t be reached – but as a horizontally aligned goal to strive for alongside it?

Should we take depression as an example, amongst others, it isn't - usually anyways - used to describe anything deeper than circumstantial sadness. Signs of actual depression beyond that are ignored, or in most cases categorized as something else. Depression is not a monolith, and neither is any mental disability for that matter. Psychiatrists however have gathered symptoms that are indicators one may be depressed, including fatigue, trouble concentrating and or doing minimal habitual tasks. IN addition, a person's interests fade away, causing them in more advanced levels to find life meaningless, and not worthy to live.

Any young Haitian living this reality will testify that there's a misinterpretation for each of these symptoms, ranging from laziness, to demon possession. Those are all relatively physical causes, or problems that can be "solved" with familiar things such as "beatings" and "prayer", commandments our parents seem to live by. Over the years, the actual existence and meaning of depression gets lost in its reduction to the evil we are comfortable living amongst. Laziness and demon possession take the blame away from the environment. Then, oppression, abuse and other things fundamental in our beliefs do not have to be factored in the diagnosis.

There's a whole world of mental illnesses out there, and using depression as an example only scratches the surface of explaining the stigma and ignorance.

An anecdote I find relevant, is that of my cousin, who - from the little knowledge I am able to gather now - probably suffered from various mental disabilities/illnesses. At the time, I was 8, and everyone was adamant in convincing me he was possessed. He was never taken to the hospital, and when he had issues learning how to read and write, he'd be sent home from school or beaten - as if disability, not being neurotypical - is a form of insubordination. Finally, he quit, went on to get married, and work on land, which did not require certain mental gymnastics. He is overall happy with his life, out of what I fear, is a resignation, an acceptance of his "curse". He lives a noble life, that he has learned to love. From time to time, we hear of his episodes - showing that he did not get the needed treatment. We have never bothered to understand him beyond our religion-influenced fear. So, he's had to navigate it alone. Mental illness does not simply disappear, and when it stays, it does not do so without damage. This is important, because damage stunts growth of all kinds. In a country where our troubles are many, and self-care, and health usually do not go beyond appearance and physicality, can we expect to be a people great at the things we find DO matter (money, thus, social/religious/relationship status)?

For a lot of those who have an understanding above folk stories, religion and resignation, there is still this oversimplification of what a mental disability, or illness is. The logic is that perhaps there is something beyond physical, but like the flu, it should not really be a chronic condition that requires lifestyle changes and perhaps continuous (professional) help. I believe a lot of it has to do with the urge for a person to be useful to society again, as if mental illness are things that can be dusted off - because to poor folks, a lot of times they must be. If not, what will be of our survival.

Without taking accountability away from the individuals, and the entire peoples who live with this one-dimensional thinking, one can safely conclude that it is made harder to learn about things that are only made known by testimonies, when entire structures scream otherwise.

In other words, if the schools do not take it upon themselves to teach the importance of mental health, and the home is not a place where accurate information is shared, then the people are only working with fragments of truth and empty spaces to fill with beliefs and imagination. In consequence, the reality of mental illness feels like an affront and an offense, which fuels demonization, and defensive willful ignorance. People don't want to care.

If we do not fully care about our full individual wellness, how are we to expect progress? Planting trees on our minds' burial grounds does not eventually give us a safe and wealthy garden.

Written by Daisha Dorsainvil