Gargi's therapy area with Niel another volunteer

Disaster Shakti

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the impoverished nation of Haiti, killing 220,000 people, injuring more than 300,000, and initially displacing 1.5 million. Volunteers from Antioch University New England’s Disaster Shakti joined the international humanitarian response and traveled to Port-au-Prince to provide counseling services to individuals and families traumatized by the catastrophic quake and the horrific living conditions it spawned. 

Disaster Shakti is a volunteer team of Antioch doctoral clinical psychology students who use their education to reach out to disaster survivors throughout the world. Their work began in 2005, soon after the tsunami disaster in Southeast and South Asia, when clinical psychology professor Dr. Gargi Roysircar and a team of students traveled to Tamil Nadu, India. Trained in multicultural counseling competencies, the students affirmed the resilience of the survivors and empowered them to take care of their well-being.

While in India, Dr. Roysircar held discussions with social workers and community counselors and reached consensus that the name Shakti, which means empowerment in several Indian languages, was an appropriate way to describe the wellness orientation of the work the team was doing.

Disaster Shakti made its first trip to Haiti in June 2010 to assist with the psychological aspects of recovery.

Roysircar has been to disaster sites all over the world, from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa and Botswana, to post-flood recovery in Tabasco, Mexico. But Haiti’s despair caught even her off-guard—the crumbled buildings and rubble-filled streets, the hundreds of thousands of newly homeless living in unsanitary conditions in precarious makeshift camps.

The students worked with individual clients and ran group sessions for children and teens. They were advised on matters of culture, religion, spirituality, and politics of Haitian people. The volunteers helped their translators learn how to listen for words and phrases that are triggers for mental health illnesses. They also met with local recovery organizations to learn about successful relief activities and to share their own disaster counseling work.

Since that first trip to Haiti, Disaster Shakti has made five additional trips.

Dr. Alyssa Lanza ’14 went to Haiti as part of the May 2012 expedition. She spent long days at Blanchard Clinic, a small building in a compound that offers medical support and resources to the community. The therapeutic work took place outdoors under a tented table or in the yard in chairs. Research groups worked primarily with children, while individual therapy and psychoeducational health groups worked with adults.

Lanza chose to participate in 2012’s Haiti trip because as a psychology professional, she wanted to learn how to effectively help people whose daily lives are challenged by short and long-term disaster.

“I have a greater understanding of how to work in disaster settings and it has given me a greater skill set when working with individuals with limited resources,” Lanza says. “A piece of my heart will always be in Haiti.”

Roysircar echoed the sentiment. “I think my heart belongs to Haiti. They are so artistic and the kids love to draw. I just feel so much at home with them. We are so careful of our behaviors, but they are so open.”

The Antioch group stayed at an orphanage for children with special needs and much of their time off was spent informally interacting with Haitian children affected by chronic need.

“The kids and women are suffering all the time,” says Roysircar. “They really have a great faith in God so that helps them cope. Either they have a great faith in God or are angry with God, but they both come out on Sunday.”

“I saw many incidences of trauma when I was an advocate of domestic, sexual violence, and human trafficking victims. Then a service and research trip to Haiti confirmed my interest and set me on the path of curiosity about these issues,” Dr. Bola Afolayan, PsyD ’15, said in a community partner profile on the Endowment for Health site. During her 2012 trip, she spent two weeks working with the earthquake victims, particularly children still struggling with issues of trauma. She encouraged them to express their feelings through art and collected data on trauma. “It changed my life,” Afolayan says. “I will take that with me for the rest of my life.”

PsyD student Perrin Tellock volunteered with Disaster Shakti during the 2012 trip and again in 2013. “When we were in Haiti in 2012, we were still seeing the after-effects of the earthquake, what they call the ‘goudou-goudou.’ There were a lot of buildings reduced to rubble or pancaked, and people were living in tents,” says Tellock. “During this trip most people had been relocated and much of the street rubble has been removed, but we still saw a lot of people suffering from poverty and long-term neglect.”

The 2013 volunteers held classes and explained the effects of stress and how it can exacerbate diabetes, cardiac problems, and sickle cell disease. They also taught muscle relaxation techniques, useful to stressed-out Haitians who often feel marginalized and helpless. When needed, suicide risk evaluations were completed.

“The poverty is so overwhelming. To see it for the first time, you think it’s hopeless,” Tellock adds. “But it’s not a place where change can be measured in days or weeks. If you think of it as year after year, you do see that it is going forward.”

Disaster Shakti joined Global Trauma Research (GTR) Inc. in Croix-des-Bouquets (near Port-au-Prince) in December 2015, to educate teachers, local helpers, and ministers in trauma diagnosis and help. They also organized a Christmas party for 350 school children, which Roysircar says was a “hoot.” Donations from the Antioch community helped buy Santa’s suit and candy.

In addition to providing mental health services, Roysircar conducts research on the Haitian patient population. She explains, “We follow the principle of evidence-based practice. We collected data from our patients with sickle cell disease, whom we counseled individually as well as educated on their disease through psychoeducation.” PsyD student Sarajane Rodgers is using this data on attention deficit, sleep disorder, and emotion dysregulation for her dissertation.

Roysircar shared a story from Disaster Shakti’s 2016 trip:

Volunteer teams of doctoral clinical psychology students have made six trips to Haiti with Disaster Shakti.

“Here’s this young man, about 24 years old. He came to see me and said that he wanted to kill himself. Of course, I did immediate crisis intervention. He described this rope. I told him how he should keep this rope from himself. He told me he felt so ashamed because he could not contribute economically because he did not have a job. The young man returned for another session with his mother and father. I asked him to tell his mother how he was thinking of taking his life. Then his mother said to give her the rope. We all stood up to say a prayer and the mother burned the rope. We watched as the rope burned. He comes to see me every time I am there. He is fine. The mother sells bananas and fruit. He sells soda.”

Dr. Gargi Roysircar

In 2017, the Disaster Shakti team made their sixth trip to Haiti.

Dr. Ashland Thompson, PsyD ‘17, a fourth-year PsyD student at the time, was part of the 2017 team. Thompson was previously a Peace Corp volunteer in Zambia and Kenya, but had always wanted to go to Haiti. When Thompson arrived at Antioch, he became a research assistant for the Antioch Multicultural Center, assisting Roysircar with community projects and research.

Thompson draws parallels between his experiences in Africa and Haiti, explaining, “Haiti is very African-feeling.” Thompson noted that while in Africa, he was very dependent on the community he was serving, and that the relationship was one of reciprocity rather than one-sided service.

“We shouldn’t just learn about people; we should learn from people too. That’s the important stance people need to take when they go over there to work. You have to engage with the people. It takes humility to learn from something. They have a lot to teach,” says Thompson.

Although the disaster may have made some Haitians stronger, many others were traumatized and most still must grapple with everyday life in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“It is easy to become despondent when much of the client’s situation is out of the therapist’s control,” says Tellock. “But though there is suffering, there is beauty in sitting face to face with another person and bearing witness to their experience. That’s the real value of it.”