Warding Off Mental Health Problems After A Quake
ALEX COHEN, host:
It's been nearly two months since the devastating earthquake in China's Sichuan province. Survivors there are slowly rebuilding, and many of them are still trying to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. But Chinese mental health care workers believe they can learn from this experience. From Beijing, NPR's Anthony Kuhn brings us this story about how Chinese and American crisis-intervention experts are preparing for the next big disaster.
ANTHONY KUHN: There's a time and a place for a psychoanalyst and a couch, but it's not right after an earthquake or other natural disaster. What's needed then are words to help the injured to heal. For example...
Ms. JUDITH PRAGER: I know that you're here but until the ambulance comes, I want you to imagine a place you love to be.
KUHN: Judith Prager is a Los Angeles-based hypnotherapist who has worked with emergency responders following 9/11. She's here at a conference to tell Chinese teachers and doctors about administering what she calls verbal first aid.
Ms. PRAGER: What's said to us at the scene of a catastrophe or an emergency sets the trajectory, sets the course for recovery. Or it's opposite: If you say the wrong thing, terrible things can happen.
KUHN: Many Chinese at the conference had just come back from treating survivors in Sichuan. Crisis intervention and metal health care are recent imports to China, and the conference participants had a lot of questions for the American invitees.
Counselor Jan Jei Fong (ph) said she's gotten conflicting advice on how to help quake victims.
Ms. JAN JEI FONG (Counselor): (Chinese spoken)
KUHN: Some people tell us to let the survivors cry; others say don't, she said. Some tell us to talk to them one on one. Others say do it in groups. We're very confused. Another problem is that the survivors are often unaware or skeptical of the importance of mental health care. Counselor Helena Guir (ph), who helped arrange the conference, relates what earthquake survivors in Sichuan told her.
Ms. HELENA GUIR (Counselor): You cannot provide us a place to stay, you know, so I think it's probably people need the safety and basic needs first. I think the psychological needs is not their first priority.
KUHN: In the U.S., Guir worked with Centerstone, a Tennessee-based nonprofit group. Centerstone CEO, David Guth, says the advantage of China starting from scratch is that it can learn from other successes and mistakes.
Mr. DAVID GUTH (CEO, Centerstone): My experience is that a lot of countries - and the U.S. in particular is this way, where we get very insulated and try to reinvent the wheel ourselves each time. And so I'm very impressed with the China response and the openness around learning from others' experiences.
KUHN: It's too late for a crisis intervention to be of much help to earthquake survivors now. They just need standard therapy to help them understand their own emotions and let go of them. Helena Guir recalls one therapy session in a Sichuan school. The teachers compared their emotions to quake-lakes, that is, rivers blocked by landslides triggered by the earthquake.
Ms. GUIR: The teacher says this is the first time in one month, the first time we kind of feel relaxed. And they say that you open our quake-lake, you know. So, out all the sorrows, the tears, the fears, you know, all of that you opened up.
KUHN: And that, says Guir, was one of the nicest compliments possible. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.