Lynn Waelde’s Report to Dr. Calvin on her Trip to the Philippines, December 2013

January 2, 2014

Article from the January 2014 Edition of Global Mental Health Newsletter, written by Lynn Waelde, Ph.D. 

Read the "Update on Disaster and LGBT Psychology by Leading Filipino Psychologists at PAU"

I am writing to report on the trip I took to the Philippines (12/16-12/23/13) at the invitation of the person who is the President of the Psychological Association of the Philippines and Faculty Chair of the Psychology Department at Ateneo de Manila University.

My Ateneo colleagues are coordinating the disaster mental health response to Typhoon Haiyan at the national level. My role was to help them plan and implement their relief efforts. I provided disaster mental health consultation for the team of faculty and graduate students from Ateneo and mindfulness training in a series of workshops for first responders, local government officials, and medical and mental health personnel. We worked together on a novel integration of mindfulness training with Psychological First Aid and our efforts were well received. I summarize the results below.

First, a little backstory about the disaster. Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful in recorded history. It slammed into the archipelago with winds topping 200 mph. According to the U.N., more than 12 million people were affected, with 4 million displaced and 2.5 million in need of food aid. The number of dead tops 6,000 with thousands still missing. We traveled to Samar and Leyte Provinces, where the devastation is far worse than anything I have ever seen. The complete destruction goes on for miles and miles. Everywhere there were people living on top of giant piles of debris. There is no electricity, no internet, no landline access, and little cell access, which is only part of the problem for the local responders as most of their assets (laptops, mobile phones, vehicles, buildings) were destroyed. There is little food and drinkable water and only the most haphazard forms of shelter. Despite the sweltering heat, people light fires at night to keep the mosquitoes away.

Our first two workshops were in Samar Province, an area with an active armed insurgency. Over two days, we worked with about 70 first responders and local government officials responsible for coordinating disaster relief efforts. This group was highly disaster-exposed and included staff responsible for recovering and counting the dead. The Ateneo team presented two day-long workshops on Psychological First Aid; I offered 90 minute mindfulness trainings for responder self-care. Participants in both workshops ranked the mindfulness training as the most useful workshop component.

We also worked in Tacloban, at the Univ. of the Philippines, Visayas. This is a public university badly damaged by the typhoon. It had only intermittent generator power and no running water the day we worked there. Fortunately, it was a rainy day and not too hot! At UP we worked with about 40 faculty, graduate students, and local medical and mental health providers. The mindfulness training was well received and I was asked to return to provide a "train the trainers" workshop so they could teach meditation as part of the relief work and for responder self-care.

I traveled with an amazingly dedicated group of psychologists and graduate students from Ateneo. The team was selected for their skills and language proficiencies as there are several dialects here. It is good that I went alone because there are not resources to transport more than a small number of essential people to the disaster zone. In fact, one of our Psy.D. program graduates, Ronald Del Castillo, was in Iloilo, Philippines visiting his family and volunteered to accompany us to Tacloban to assist in the trainings, but my local colleagues asked him to volunteer in Iloilo because of the difficulties involved in transporting responders to the disaster zone.

The team I worked with frequently referred to “bayanihan,” which is a beautiful concept in Filippino culture that has particular significance at this time. It refers to the practice of moving a home by running poles underneath and carrying it to its new location. It is an effort that requires the help of a whole community and as such, bayanihan means "community spirit." Interestingly, the word is derived from the word “bayani,” which means "hero." The team I work with certainly put the "bayani" in “bayanihan”! They are working nonstop, traveling to the disaster zones every weekend, even during the times they were observing Christmas and New Year's with their families. I am grateful for the opportunity to provide sup- port and assistance to people so dedicated to using their professional and personal resources to serve others.

Allen, so many people in the Philippines asked me to con- vey their good wishes and gratitude to you. They are enormously appreciative that you have the value of "not standing idly by." They are very touched that you were moved to fund work here and I think your gesture of support means as much as anything right now.