Philippines: “Depression can be as much of a disability as blindness”

Posted on November 25, 2013

As the acute emergency phase following Typhoon Haiyan subsides, the next major hurdle for the people of the Philippines is how they will cope with the psychological impact of the disaster.

As the acute emergency phase following Typhoon Haiyan subsides, the next major hurdle for the people of the Philippines is how they will cope with the psychological impact of the disaster.

Ana Maria Tijerino, psychologist and mental health advisor, is working with MSF emergency teams on Panay Island. She describes the scale of the needs the mental health teams are discovering , and how MSF plans to respond to the situation.

It is just the third day of our medical activities here in Panay but we are already seeing so many people suffering from psychological distress. It is especially acute in the villages where people did not have the time to evacuate, and actually had to live through the storm, and see the destruction in front of their eyes. After living through such a severe experience, it is almost impossible to come out mentally unscathed.

People will often come to our doctors and nurses complaining of headaches, back pain or shortness of breath. These symptoms are often related to the stress they have experienced. We are aiming to ‘normalise’ these symptoms for the patients we see, and help them understand that what they are experiencing is simply a normal reaction to an extremely abnormal event.

I saw one woman today who had been unable to leave her bed for the last week because she was feeling so upset. She was having a lot of headaches and other body pains. She had heard that a medical team was coming to her village, so today she made the effort to get out of bed. As soon as the doctor saw her, we realised that a lot of the physical complaints were more related to the stress she experienced as a direct result of the typhoon. She and her husband had taken shelter under a bed during the typhoon, and their house was completely destroyed. Explaining what she had lived through, made her cry through the whole consultation.

Most of the patients we are seeing are either elderly or young children. In general, the elderly are very vulnerable during emergencies. Usually they do not have strong support networks; they may be widowed; or they may have physical disabilities. It is more difficult for them to be evacuated, and they may not want to because they are concerned to protect their homes. At the same time, they are often left behind in terms of aid, which is frequently directed towards children and women of reproductive age. They also bear a lot of the stress: in this culture, they are the heads of the families. Even though their personal experience of the disaster may be overwhelming , they also have to look after their family.

Children have also been strongly affected. With schools completely destroyed and unlikely to open again soon, children are left without their normal daily routine which is so essential to recovery. One positive sign is that you can see some children playing in the village, and you see their resilience even amidst an ongoing crisis. In our clinics we are seeing many children with differing reactions to the typhoon. They are afraid, they cannot sleep, and many will cry when there is heavy rain.

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Category(s):Depression, Mental Health in Asia

Source material from Médecins Sans Frontières

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