Haitian Earthquake Trauma May Strike People in U.S.

People in Haiti may suffer physically after Tuesday's earthquake near Port-au-Prince. But some who will suffer long-term effects from the disaster will be far from the disaster zone.

Thousands of Haitians have moved to the U.S. and elsewhere -- and psychologically, it can be as hard to watch the crisis from a distance than to be in the thick of it. They worry about family back home. They have a personal link to the country. Expatriates are at risk for psychological trauma that may last for years after the rubble has cleared.

VIDEO: Families desperately wait for information about loved ones.
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"The communications systems are still down, so that's the major concern right now," said Guerlince Semerzier, president of the Haitian Coalition of Somerville, a Boston suburb. "Everyone's still trying to get a hold of their loved ones. I think in a situation like that, people feel hopeless. What can they do? There's nothing they can do to help out."

Semerzier left Haiti in 1990, at the age of 15. But he has family there, including his father and sister, who were visiting for Christmas and were scheduled to come back to the U.S. this week. He has not been able to reach them.

He said tragedy is not only felt by people with family there.

"Every single Haitian is affected by that tragedy," said Semerzier. "Even if it may not be directly, you know someone who has someone that's down there."

The feeling of being unable to help can have a strong effect on people in the United States who feel a personal connection with Haiti but did not go through the actual quake.

"People aren't going to know for days and days who's alive," said Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatrist and clinical director of the Mind-Body program at Emory University. "The longer that goes on, the more likely people are to develop emotional problems."

Semerzier said his organization is focusing mostly on aid for Haiti, but is prepared to help people in the local community.

"Right now, we try to calm everyone down, and also provide some trauma assistance, counseling," he said.

Even once people have made contact, they are still psychologically vulnerable.

"We catch emotions from each other like a virus, and trauma is certainly one of those emotions," said Raison.

Evidence of this, he said, can be seen in studies of the children of Holocaust survivors, who may encounter more stress in their lifetimes than their counterparts whose parents did not go through it, even though they themselves may not suffer any more in their own lives.

"It's as if they caught it by osmosis," Raison said.

Close to Tragedy

Other factors may also play a role in how much the tragedy strikes them.

"There is some interesting research that happened post-9/11 about the effects of watching traumatic events on television and reading about it in newspapers and magazines," said Dr. Joan Cook, a psychiatrist with Yale University who specializes in traumatic stress.

"There is indeed a significant relationship between watching media coverage of trauma -- i.e., terrorist attacks -- and stress symptoms," she said. "However, it is unclear if watching these events are the cause of the increased distress or if people who are more prone to stress reactions watch more coverage of the trauma on TV.

"The media can play a critical role, obviously sometimes good, sometimes bad, in the aftermath of a disaster. We can guess that for many Haitians who cannot find out about the status or whereabouts of their family members, they may be turning to news coverage quite often."

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