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Chilean Children Suffer From Quake's Mental Shocks

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Chilean Children Suffer From Quake's Mental Shocks

Latin America

Chilean Children Suffer From Quake's Mental Shocks

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Chilean capital, Santiago, withstood last month's monster earthquake remarkably well. Most buildings remain standing. But mental health experts say the earthquake and its aftershocks are having strong psychological effects.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JASON BEAUBIEN: In a neighborhood on the northern periphery of Santiago, the facades of the simple brick houses show few signs of the February 27th quake. But the powerful shaking left many residents here on edge.

Fourteen-year-old Thiare Salas(ph) says her house wasn't damaged but she still can't sleep.

Ms. THIARE SALAS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I lay down to sleep and I pray, Salas says. I ask God to protect me, to protect us.

Ms. SALAS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I pray and pray and pray and nothing happens to me, she says. Nothing happens to me.

Days after the quake, local hospitals report that they had numerous people many of them kids checking into emergency rooms with panic attacks.

(Soundbite of children)

BEAUBIEN: At a community center in Salas' neighborhood, the staff has set up a trampoline, a jumping castle and several games out in the street.

Ms. MARTA GAZZARI (Chile Communications, World Vision): It's very important for the community to get together and return to normalcy through play.

BEAUBIEN: Marta Gazzari(ph) is with World Vision, which helps fund and organize this community center.

Ms. GAZZARI: I was just hearing the story of a mother. Her kid is here. He looks totally normal but he has had severe vomiting. He's jumpy, as we all are, anyway. But the mother says that bringing the child here makes a lot of difference.

BEAUBIEN: The Christian charity is opening several centers in some of the hardest-hit parts of Chile that they're calling child friendly spaces, to try to ease the burden of the quake on kids. World Vision is also launching a nationwide toll-free helpline. The phone bank, staffed by psychologists, will offer counseling to anyone feeling stressed, anxious or severely depressed. They're also offering advice to parents on how to help their children cope with the traumatic event. Parents like Grace Gonzalez(ph).

Ms. GRACE GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Gonzalez says the aftershocks are terrifying her nine-year-old daughter, Yaripsa. Suddenly she'll just start yelling when she feels a quake, Gonzalez says.

The ceiling in their simple house collapsed. Her husband has propped it back up with a wobbly stick. But Gonzalez says the greatest effect has been on daughter, Yaripsa.

Ms. GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: For two days her daughter had stomachaches, Gonzalez says. She didn't want the night to arrive. Her stomach would hurt and she was crying and didn't want to go to bed.

At a public health clinic in the south of Santiago, psychologist Maria Carolina Aguilera says the earthquake affected everyone within hundreds of miles of the epicenter.

Dr. MARIA CAROLINA AGUILERA (Psychologist): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In general, people are more irritable, more tense, more aggressive, Aguilera says. People are in a state of hyper-alert, which adds to the normal daily levels of stress.

Dr. AGUILERA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If the mothers are screaming and falling into despair, Aguilera says, the children don't feel safe. Yet, children expect to feel protected by their parents. So it can be even more traumatic. And in the future, it's going to traumatize them every time there's a quake.

Aguilera says one of the most important things for children and adults, in terms of dealing with the psychological effects of an earthquake, is to acknowledge that it was frightening, talk about it. And, at times, allow themselves to cry.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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