Providing Psychological Support in the Philippines

Florian Lems/MSF

In the village of Macanip, on Leyte island, Typhoon Haiyan destroyed four of every five buildings and reduced the local health post to a pile of crushed concrete. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are running mobile clinics to provide health care for Macanip’s 2,500 residents, including psychological support to help people recover from the traumatic event. One of them is 26-year-old Bernadina Barraza.

“I have three young children,” says Bernadina Barraza. “My husband works in another town, so during the day I'm alone with the children. The smallest—my daughter Marie Jersel—has just turned five months old. She is suffering from diarrhea, so I came to the mobile clinic to get her examined by the doctor and get some medicine. My son has a fever and an itching skin rash, so I brought him too.”

Macanip’s former health post was reduced to a pile of rubble by the typhoon, putting an end to the local midwife’s daily home visits and leaving the villagers without health care or medicines. Pregnant women and sick people have no choice but to travel to the district health center in the town of Jaro, which was damaged by the typhoon but is still functioning, though it is crowded with patients from across the region.

When the typhoon hit Macanip, Barraza took her children to the village school, where many others were sheltering. “My children were so scared,” she says. “It was loud and very frightening.” The village’s two evacuation centers—the school and the church—were among the few buildings in the village to stand up to the devastating storm.

Invisible Scars

Barraza and her family survived without physical injury, but the children are still suffering the psychological after-effects of the disaster.

“Since the typhoon, my four-year-old son Jerson is not doing well,” she says. “During the day he is fine; he plays with the other children and has no complaints. But at night he can't sleep. He often wakes up suddenly, as if he is scared of something. I think he’s still traumatized by the typhoon.”

MSF’s mobile clinics provide the villagers with basic health care and emotional support. Meliza Daz, a Filipino psychologist, works alongside the medical team. “This little boy was waking up crying and couldn’t get back to sleep for hours,” Daz says. “He also started to wet his bed, sometimes three times a night, which is a common reaction after a traumatic event for children of his age, who cannot process what has happened and often show a physical reaction.”

To help him through his distress, Daz produced paper and crayons. “He is a very shy boy,” she says, “so I gave him paper and crayons and asked him to draw what he was afraid of. I let him describe his picture and he said it was a monster and he was afraid it would hurt him.

"I asked him to draw what he could do to protect himself, and he drew himself with a sword. We call this reconstructive play; it helps children to cope with their traumatic event. At the same time it’s important to tell the parents to be supportive, to hug their children when they're afraid and to make them feel safe.”

An Uncertain Future

After the medical consultation and a counseling session, Barraza collects medicine for her children from the MSF pharmacy and prepares to go home. “Our house was destroyed, but fortunately we managed to build a little hut from some material we collected in the village,” she says. “Luckily there is a food distribution once a week, but we haven’t received any other relief goods yet—no plastic sheeting or tents. I don’t know what the future will bring for us. All I want is for us to be able to repair our house and rebuild our lives.” 

Philippines 4 December 2013. Bernardina Barraza with two of her three children, Marie Jersel and four year old Jerson. A mobile clinic visited her village Macanip in Jaro (northern Leyte province) today. In total, 116 patients were treated, mainly for respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, skin infections and chronic diseases. After the typhoon hit the Philippines on 8 November, MSF reacted with a massive emergency response. More than 200 humantarian workers were send to the affected areas. Teams have set up inflatable and tented hospitals, are working in health centers and reach out to more remote communities with mobile clinics. Apart from that, the teams distribute shelter, hygiene sets and other non food items.
Florian Lems/MSF