Mobile 'talk' with dead mum can be life-saver
Published 30/01/2010 | 05:00
Four-year-old Jo, orphaned by Haiti's devastating earthquake, was chatting on a mobile phone and asking for toys and sweets.
The young boy told a Haitian Red Cross volunteer he was on the phone with his mother, although she was one of the tens of thousands killed in the January 12 catastrophe.
"I asked him, 'Who have you been talking to?'" Red Cross worker Magalie Saint Simon, who rescued the boy after the quake, said.
"With my mother," he told her.
"She said she was not coming to get me . . . because she is dead."
Jo and other orphans are being treated by a mobile psychological counselling unit deployed for the first time in such a disaster by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Ea Suzanne Ashak, who heads the unit, said the ICRC learned the importance of quick psychological intervention after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
"People who didn't get any psycho-support withered, they didn't engage in society again, they didn't engage in rebuilding society," she said. "They didn't know what to do."
In Haiti, the goal is to immediately help people cope with their extreme distress so they can focus on physical survival, she said.
Trained volunteers try gently to pry out information about lost children, their relatives and their grief. Jo's imaginary telephone conversation can be one safe way to help young children express their grief.
World Health Organisation experts say treating the psychological effects of the quake may be as important as treating the physical injuries.
Jo, initially reserved and withdrawn, finally opened up when Magalie gave him a telephone to play with.
"If you go around the tents, you will see the change. If you had come before, you would have said they were monsters. When we talked to them, they were mute. It was incredible. Now it's OK," said Magalie.