Psychologists help Mexico deal with trauma of quake

Whether wearing white lab coats, red rescue worker vests or dressed as clowns, the psychologists standing by as Mexico picks through the rubble of this week’s earthquakes are ready to help a shaken nation deal with its trauma.
Whole brigades of volunteer psychologists have deployed to the collapsed buildings in Mexico City where families are clinging to the fading hope that their loved ones are alive inside.
Exhausted rescuers are still working round the clock to untangle the wreckage, despite the fact that the crucial 72-hour window for finding survivors from Tuesday’s quake has closed.
“The families still have hope, but we psychologists are starting to prepare ourselves to counsel them in the context of mourning,” said Penelope Exzacarias at a collapsed office building in Mexico City’s Roma neighbourhood.
Wearing a red vest marked with the word ‘Psychologist’, Exzacarias was on hand to support victims’ families — mainly by listening.
“With every passing minute, hope is diminishing for them. It’s a very painful moment,” she said.
Psychologists are also on hand to help the thousands of rescue workers, many of them volunteers, who have been grappling with the rubble since Tuesday.
“It’s hard to work non-stop for so long and to see a dead body, even if you’re used to it,” said Lorena Villalpando, another psychologist at the scene wearing a red vest and orange helmet declaring her profession.
Mexico’s trauma is all the greater because the tragedy struck on the anniversary of the worst earthquake in its history, which killed more than 10,000 people in 1985.
Even for people not directly affected by the destruction in this sprawling city of 20 million people, there can be lasting trauma, said Alan Schejtman Deutsch of the Mexican Psychoanalytical Association, who is coordinating the brigades of volunteer psychologists.
A specialist clinic in the nearby neighbourhood of Condesa was signing up volunteer psychologists to counsel residents of the hard-hit district. The most common symptoms of PTSD they were seeing: “constantly reliving the moment of trauma in your mind, a high level of anxiety, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite,” said Schejtman.
Children are at risk too, he emphasised.
“Children actually suffer much worse because they assimilate all this information in a completely different way. They don’t really understand what’s happening… and death is a subject they understand even less,” he said. — AFP

Elodie Cuzin