Training teachers in Haiti to address mental health

Doctoral student Marisol Meyer.
By Marisol Meyer

Doctoral student Marisol Meyer.

Training teachers in Haiti to address mental health

By Marisol Meyer
Doctoral student Marisol Meyer spent a week in Haiti working with Rebati Santé Mentale’s Teachers Mental Health Training Program.

I spent a week this summer working with Rebati Santé Mentale’s Teachers Mental Health Training Program in Haiti. The training took place in Ti Goave, easily one of the most beautiful places I've traveled. The landscape boasted a massive body of water at the foot of a vast mountain range. Regardless of what direction you looked, you were guaranteed a dynamic burst of color. The bright clothes people wore, the vivid murals on boulders and buildings, and the rich, lively hues of lush vegetation all competed for your attention. Every view was so gorgeous I had to promise friends back home that I hadn't photoshopped my pictures.

However, while the magnificent views were an added benefit of working in this southern region in Haiti, our collective primary focus for the week was the critical issue of mental health in Haiti.

University of Miami Professor (and my advisor) Guerda Nicolas from the School of Education and Human Development co-founded Rebati Santé Mentale to increase awareness and capacity building initiatives in the area of mental health in Haiti and in the U.S. The Teachers Mental Health Training Program trains teachers from various regions in Haiti to define, identify, and intervene with mental health problems and illness. The project is overseen by Natacha Janac, who received her master’s degree in Community and Social Change at the University of Miami and is currently in her third year for the Psy.D. clinical psychology program at Albizu University. The program’s overall mission is to prepare teachers to serve as ambassadors of this information to their community and beyond.

Unfortunately, mental health is not yet widely emphasized in Haiti, and further, mental illness is highly stigmatized. Teachers that elect to participate in this program do so because they have a desire to know more about these issues and disseminate their newfound knowledge to other people in their communities. This year, the training served 16 teachers from 7 different schools representing 9 different towns in the southern region of Haiti and were guided by four members of Team Unity from Mountrouis and Akaye who were previously trained as trainers within Rebati Santé Mentale.

The curriculum focuses on the following major mental health issues relevant to residents of Haiti: identity, depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief. The program breaks down each mental health issue into several parts: causes, signs, symptoms, types, and cultural differences.

For the section on causes of mental health issues, facilitators explained how biology, environment, and individual characteristics can trigger various mental health problems or illness. For the section on signs of mental health issues, facilitators explained how individuals may show they are struggling with a mental health issue by displaying changes in their emotions, cognition, or behavior. For symptoms, facilitators explained the different symptomology that accompanies the mental illness depending on the age of the individual. Finally, for cultural differences, facilitators explored how various signs and symptoms of mental health issues may manifest and express themselves differently based on an individual’s culture.  

The curriculum was delivered by passionate, brilliant teachers that have undergone the program themselves. At the end of each training program, outstanding participants are hand-selected to serve as facilitators for future trainings. This year’s facilitators were dynamic lecturers that skillfully delivered complex information in a palatable and engaging way. True educators at heart, they even used some of their free time to teach me a handful of conversational phrases in Creole.   

Facilitators provided participants with many opportunities to ask questions or make comments in order to ensure they understood the material. More formally, at the end of each module targeting a specific mental health issue (i.e., depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief), groups of participants were assigned a subsection (i.e., causes, signs, symptoms, cultural differences) for which they prepared a short presentation to demonstrate their understanding. Once the curriculum had been completely covered, these groups completed final presentations. These final presentations are typically creative representations of one of four major mental health issues. This year’s final projects took on the form of short, entertaining performances that were just as informative as they were delightful.

Before receiving their diplomas for successful completion of the program, participants were invited to provide some feedback on their experience with the program. It was moving to hear how grateful these teachers were for the chance to learn about mental health and how much they felt they had learned. I found their appreciation particularly moving because these individuals made sacrifices to be at the training. As educators, these individuals are not greatly compensated for their work. These individuals chose to invest in the opportunity to learn about mental health, arranging their own transportation, and taking time away from work and family. It is clear these individuals understand the gravity of mental health awareness and now have the information to make a difference. Equipped with their diploma and a substantial amount of information, these teachers are ready to return home and serve as a catalyst of change in the way mental health is conceptualized in their communities and beyond.

Marisol Meyer is a doctoral student in the School of Education and Human Development. She is a rising second year Ph.D. student in counseling psychology.