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News that the World Health Organisation plans to address mental health disorders around the world prompts vivid memories of a reporting assignment to post-quake Haiti
It’s my most abiding memory of the 10 days I spent in Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake – and the most distressing. Even three years on, it’s an image I cannot forget.
I'd arrived in the country a few weeks after the 7.0 magnitude quake. By then, there were no corpses in the streets and nobody was being pulled out from under the rubble – but the devastating aftermath was everywhere.
One day, I visited the ruins of the Municipal Nursing Home in downtown Port-au-Prince to report on the plight of the elderly. The quake had pretty much flattened the home and its residents, in their 70s, 80s and 90s, were sleeping under canvas, up to seven of them per tent. In the afternoon sun, the heat inside was stifling.
All around their campsite, families from a poor neighbourhood nearby that had been badly hit by the quake had made their own makeshift homes. The place was a sea of multi-coloured tarpaulins, with half-dressed children running around.
But the elderly men and women weren’t getting on well with the new arrivals. I came across an old man sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a long yellow T-shirt that extended just below his waist, but no trousers. He told me some of the homeless people had stolen his sheet and pillow and he had nothing to cover him at night.
Another man showed me a gash on his leg that looked infected. One 87-year-old woman told me they had no medicine, no food and – because they had to wash and go to the toilet in full view of their neighbours – no dignity. Some were struggling with poor mental health.
These scenes were disturbing enough but as I put away my notebook with a heavy heart, something in the distance caught my eye. This is what I wrote on my own blog – from a hotel room in the Dominican Republic on the day I left Haiti – about what I saw:
And then through a gap between two men in wheelchairs and a shrub, I noticed a young skinny boy, completely naked, sat on the dirt, with his hands and feet tied together. He wasn't part of the nursing home. It seemed he belonged to the displaced families who had moved on to the land of the nursing home after the quake. I asked why he was tied up and naked. I was told he had mental health problems and would self harm if he was untied.
I really didn't know what to do so I didn't do anything. And whether that was the right thing to do, I just don't know. But I felt very sad. I'm not sure what kind of life that is. I just have to trust that God knows what he's doing and is looking out for him somehow.
Three years on, those feelings are less acute, but the picture of that boy is just as vivid. And today, I also feel regret for not having done more to help, although I still wonder what I could have done.
How many people with mental health disorders live like that boy around the world? How many have their hands and feet tied together or sit chained to tables and beds? How many are mistreated because they cannot fend for themselves?
As someone who has struggled with her own mental and emotional health at times – with anxiety, depression and low mood – I can’t imagine what it must be like to be at the more extreme end of the mental health spectrum and live in a country where one’s most basic needs aren’t met and where poverty, hunger and disease are rife.
That’s why I was really pleased to read the World Health Organisation is set to adopt an action plan to address mental health disorders, which, it says, affect more than 450 million people globally, with up to 85 percent of people with severe mental health issues in the developing world unable to get treatment.
But reading that news also brought the memories of Haiti flooding back. I can see that young boy today, struggling to move around on the parched earth, his long, bare legs stretched out before him and his hands and feet tied up with dirty old rope.
I hope and pray that somehow he got the help he needed and that others like him, in Haiti and around the world, will no longer have to sit in chains.
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