Haiti uses Voodoo and Western psychotherapy to recover

    With a million people still living in tents, it’s easy to see how slowly Haiti is recovering from last year’s earthquake. But less visible is the emotional toll. In her second in a week-long series of reports, WHYY’s Susan Phillips takes a look at ancient and modern ways Haitians treat mental illness.

    The physical devastation of the earthquake is easy to see, from tent cities to crumpled buildings dotting the urban landscape. A recent cholera epidemic killed more than 3,000 people.

    With such immediate medical and physical needs, how does a country like Haiti deal with the mental anguish resulting from an earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, injured hundreds of thousands more, and left more than a million people homeless.

    At the Mars and Kline Psychiatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince, there are barren hallways. On the walls are collages created by patients who are kept behind bars. One room for about seven women and another holds about 13 men.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “This way we got the ladies, and this way we got the men,” says Louis Girard Papillon who manages this facility where six of the country’s 15 psychiatrists work.

    He says the patients in this hospital are psychotic, schizophrenic, epileptic or drug addicted.

    But with only two psychiatric hospitals in Haiti, many Haitians don’t choose modern psychiatric care. Instead, they rely on Voodoo to cure what they consider to be a curse or possession by spirits.

    Voodoo priests are hard to find in the city because they say the hundreds of thousands of people crowd out the spirits. So to find one you have to drive out into the country.

    Driving out of the city, beyond the landfill, a narrow dirt road cuts through a forest of palm trees. About a half a mile down, the road ends at a small hamlet.

    A wooden cross marks the center of the courtyard. White doves perch on rooftops and puppies sleep in the yard. There’s a tranquility here you won’t find in Port-au-Prince.

    Pierre Jean-Bonet lives here with several families. Jean-Bonet is an Houngan, or voodoo priest. His priestly name is Ya Cezzy, [YAH-say-ZEE] which translates into English as “Real Surprise.”

    He’s stands in a room with an altar of flowers and rum, lined with the portraits of Catholic saints. Ya Cezzy says the magic here is fast and hot, and dangerous. Another room holds a similar altar, but he says the energy here is slow and cool.

    The large cinderblock building with a dirt floor is called an Ounfo, or temple. He explains the saints are actually African gods and goddesses.

    He says since last year’s earthquake, more people suffering emotional trauma have come to him for help.

    Ya-Cezzy says he can help those who are possessed by spirits. He prays to the spirits and they tell him what to do. That could involve sacrificing a goat or chicken. But, he says, not all mental health issues stem from black magic. He says for those who are traumatized by the earthquake, he can prescribe herbs. And he will refer people to medical doctors.

    Ya-Cezzy adds that some priests do Voodoo to make a lot of money. Some will even beat people who are mentally ill with the hopes of driving out evil spirits. But he says those are not good priests.

    In post-earthquake Haiti, there is a push by the government’s Health Ministry to modernize and prioritize western-style mental healthcare. The country relies on the American non-governmental organization Partners in Health to come up with a plan.

    One of their new recruits is a young psychologist named Tatiana Theresme. The health minister says she is one of 30 psychologists in the country of 10 million. Theresme works in a rural area in the country’s Central Plateau. She says some of her patients came to her after spending all their money on voodoo priests.

    “There are cases of many of her patients who have sold their cows, that’s $500 US dollars for a cow. They’ve sold their homes, they’ve sold their land just to get treatment at the traditional healer. And at the last minute when they don’t have any other options to buy one medicine they come to the free medical care that’s been there all along.”

    Theresme says she never criticizes the work of a Voodoo priest, instead, she encourages people to try the western methods.

    She says now, a year after the earthquake, more people, have recognized the need for mental healthcare counseling and pharmaceutical drugs.

    Theresme says she often has to explain her role as a psychologist to doctors and nurses whose training never included mental healthcare. In tomorrow’s story, we’ll hear from some of Theresme’s patients.

    In tomorrow’s story, we’ll hear from some of Theresme’s patients. 

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal