March 18, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 13

Asst. Prof. Guerda Nicolas


Few bicentennials have been observed under such unfortunate circumstances as this year's 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence, says Asst. Prof. Guerda Nicolas (LSOE), a Haitian native who came to the United States at age 12. The recent ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide focused attention on the political, social and economic turmoil that has marred Haiti's first two centuries, says Nicolas, overshadowing the country's historical significance. As she points out, Haiti staged the first world's first and only successful slave revolt and established the first independent black nation.

"Haiti's revolution reverberated across the world, changing the culture of slavery from Baltimore to Buenos Aires, and allowed the United States to double in size as the defeated Napoleon gave up his interests in the New World, which became the Louisiana Purchase."

For all its problems, she adds, Haiti has maintained a vibrant culture and produced great artists, writers and thinkers, including the likes of Jean-Price Mars, Jacques Roumain, René Depestre, Anthony Phelps, Gabrielle Beauvois and Wyclef Jean.

But stigmas often associated with the country - AIDS and "boat people," for example - lead to hardship for Haitians living in America, especially adolescents, said Nicolas, an expert in psychology who has spoken on mental health issues facing Haitian youths, most recently on "Tele Diaspora," Boston's Haitian TV station.

"Haitian adolescents have many difficulties with their 'double minority' - racial and ethnic - status. Sadly, in the last couple of years, mental health care providers have seen increased rates of depression, lowered racial pride, and adjustment difficulties among Haitian adolescents."

Adapting to a new country, culture and environment is difficult enough for any member of an immigrant population, says Nicolas, and the struggle is exacerbated by the developmental changes associated with childhood and adolescence.

"Haitian youth face tremendous physical stressors during their transition to a new country that can be relatively insensitive to their identity development. Adolescents in particular may be vulnerable, as it is a common practice among Haitians for youth to migrate without immediate family members and to have relatives assumes the caretaker role for them.

"All of this may add to feelings of isolation, conflict of values and loss of their primary support system. As a result, it is suspected that Haitian immigrant youth will experience mental health problems beyond those of the general African-American youth population."

As the fall-out from the end of Aristide's presidency continues, Nicolas says it is very likely the US will see another influx of Haitian refugees, although how many will be allowed to stay remains to be seen. While immediate and basic needs, such as housing and employment, will be the focus of most outreach efforts to the new immigrants, Nicolas hopes - but is doubtful - that their emotional and spiritual needs are not overlooked.

"Surely, Haitians, like any other group who have survived a tragic event such as a coup, need mental health care, but I am not sure the service is available to them. Also, such services are associated with much stigma in the community, and may not be sought out by Haitians who have had limited experience with mental health services." -Sean Smith

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