After Chengdu Quake, Mental Health Still An Issue

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Timothy Kelly, a psychologist from Pasadena, Calif., has for the past few years spent time training mental health professionals in China. His last trip coincided with the aftermath of the Chengdu earthquake. He's back there now and offers his insight.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It's been more than two and a half months since the Sichuan earthquake on May 12th - 90,000 dead or missing, hundreds of thousands injured, and some five million left homeless. Along with the massive tasks of rebuilding and physical healing, the mental health of the survivors is also of great concern.

Timothy Kelly is a psychologist based in Pasadena who's on his second trip to China since the earthquake. Today, he spent the day in the city of Dujiangyan, which was badly hit. Throughout the area, he's been helping assess what people need.

D: The psychological needs are great, and if anything increasing. For one thing, you've got the fact that people who have suffered a great trauma are more inclined to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And for another, you have folks who are just unable to go home because the homes have been destroyed or unstable. And they've been told that it will probably take about three years for the reconstruction to be completed.

BLOCK: I imagine once the immediate trauma passes, there is time then for deeper feelings to emerge, things rise up from the bottom.

D: You're exactly right. There's sort of a delayed response to these things, and that you experience a major trauma and you get to it as best as you can. And then, typically, two or three months down the line it hits you that, you know, I've lost my only child, or I've lost my father, or I've lost my right arm or my left leg; and not only that, I've lost my home; and not only that, I've lost my job. And all of these things just come crashing down as you realize that there's no quick solution to any of these.

And so one reason why, unfortunately, in the past, in these types of experiences, we found that two or three months after the disaster, there tends to be an increase in suicides.

BLOCK: Have you heard from any of the Chinese medical people there that you're talking to that they have seen any signs of that yet?

D: No, no signs of that, thank God. But what we are hearing is that there's just a great need for supportive services, for folks to get out among them and find strategies for moving ahead in the midst of it all.

BLOCK: How much of that need is being met? How many workers are there dealing with mental health issues for the people who...

D: Well, there you've got to tip your hat to the Chinese government. They are sending in hundreds of mental health workers. The only difficulty is that they're cycling through rather rapidly, so typically they're here for two to four weeks at a time. And in many cases they don't have training specifically in what would be most helpful for trauma victims.

BLOCK: What kind of training would that be?

D: Really, what you need is someone to sort of come alongside and earn your trust and ask what you need. And they might be just practical needs, like where can I find a pharmacy for the medications that I need, or where can I get help for this or that and any other medical injury that I have.

What tends to happen is people without much training will come alongside and ask, tell me, what did you go through, what have your experienced? Did you lose anybody close to you? How does that feel?

And if you ask those types of questions, you tend to re-traumatize the victim. And so - well, one of the main points of clinical training is to help these mental health workers learn that really what you need to do is mostly listen and see what the folks most need, rather than ask them to process with you what they've experienced.

BLOCK: You were in the city of Dujiangyan today, which is very badly hit by the earthquake, not very far north from Chengdu where you are now.

D: Right.

BLOCK: What did you see? Who did you talk to?

D: Well, I visited one of the hospitals and met a brave young family. There was a 18-month-old boy who had a crush injury, and most of the injuries are what they call crush injuries, of course, from the falling concrete. They can be pretty terrible. And this 18-month-old boy had a crush injury on his left foot, and so the left foot had been amputated.

He had also suffered an injury to the head and he had some brain damage as a result. And so there he was. You know, the hospital staff were around, taking care of him as best as they could. And the father was there, standing beside him as well. It turned out that the mother and the other child, daughter, had both died.

And so there you had this young father, standing beside his 18-month-old son, who is now an amputee and also was going to have to struggle with recovering from a brain injury. And it's just heartbreaking to think what this really means in the life of this young father and this young son. It just gives us a desire to do something, anything, to be of some help.

BLOCK: Do you know if the man was getting any sort of counseling?

D: I think he was still sort of in shock. I mean, he was a little distant. My guess though is that when the child is discharged and he's got to home and face life without his wife, without his daughter, without a home and with a child with severe medical needs, it's going to be pretty darn tough. So, yes, that's a case in point where psychological support, I think, will be very, very necessary.

BLOCK: Well, Timothy Kelly, thanks so much for talking with us.

D: You're most welcome. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's psychologist Timothy Kelly speaking with us from Chengdu, China. He's director of the De Pree Leadership Center Public Policy Institute in Pasadena, California.

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