Three months after the Nepal earthquake, the Red Cross is helping traumatised children rebuild their lives.
In a health centre in Nepal, Eliza Cheung leafs through page after page of drawings. They are of all the same subject; a detailed Buddha. Sketches in crayon, pen and pencil.
The mother of the 12-year-old boy who created them died in April’s earthquake. Now the boy’s father has abandoned him.
The boy was brought to a health clinic in the village of Melamchi and eventually to Eliza, a Red Cross clinical psychologist.
“I’m not quite sure what it means yet, but [his drawings] really touch me,” Eliza says. “This is not a simple picture. I think he is trying to find ways to remember his mother. It is quite a traumatic experience for someone so young to go through.”
Making a safe space
Eliza is part of a Red Cross health care relief team. Today, the whole team is training local school children in basic health care: showing them how to give simple first aid, support classmates that have experienced trauma or the death of loved ones, and deal with these experiences themselves.
The children will then go on to become peer educators, teaching others what they have learned.
Eliza’s session focusses on psychological first aid. The children gather in small circles and practice skills such as active listening and creating safe spaces. Other sessions show how to handle broken bones and open wounds.
The health centre’s work is vitally important, and there’s lot of it. Melamchi was one of the districts hardest hit by April’s earthquake. Every day, 200 patients arrive seeking help and treatment.
Nurse Tulaja Dahal says that now rebuilding has started, people are coming in with construction related injuries.
The four-year-old boy who wouldn’t eat
Many patients are referred on to Eliza and her team. While most people experience normal stress reactions after disaster, Eliza says some are dealing with clinical disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have lost parents, other family members or friends.
One of her patients is a 4-year-old boy that lost a third of his weight in less than a month. He had been buried in the rubble before being rescued. His grandmother was concerned. He wouldn’t eat, even sweets. After several sessions, the child began to talk and started eating again.
“His grandmother tried to tell me ‘thank you’ in Nepali,” Eliza says. “I couldn’t understand her words but in her eyes it was clear.”
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Eliza recently spent time in Liberia, providing mental health support to Red Cross volunteers giving Ebola victims safe and dignified burials.
She says: “One thing I have heard both here and there, over and over is, ‘I don’t believe this is real’. One mother in Melamchi told me, ‘One moment I am feeding my child and 30 seconds later, he is dead in my arms.’ She feels the same trauma every morning when she wakes up.”
Eliza says: “Without mental health services you can give someone food, but you can’t give them an appetite. You can give them shelter, but not a home. You can give them materials to rebuild their homes, but not to rebuild their lives. You can give them a blanket, but not sleep.”
Three months after disaster struck Nepal, so many physical and mental injuries still need treatment. Eliza and her team are working hard to heal these wounds.