Baylor professor collaborates with Roman Catholic priest on Haiti’s first telepsychology initiative

Advisors for the Telepsychology Initiative. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jocelyn McGee

By Jenna Fitzgerald | copy editor

There may be more than 5,000 miles between Waco and Rome, but that didn’t stop Dr. Jocelyn McGee, an assistant professor at the Garland School of Social Work, and the Reverend Dr. Wismick Jean-Charles, a Roman Catholic of Haitian descent. priest, to collaborate to implement the first telepsychology initiative in Haiti in response to COVID-19.

In 2010, the seeds of the initiative were sown when Jean-Charles founded the Center for Spirituality and Mental Health (CESSA) in Haiti in response to the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

“Haiti is a diverse and culturally rich country; it is the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first independent state in the Caribbean,” McGee said. “Haiti has experienced many natural disasters as well as socio-political upheavals. As many people know, in 2010 there was an earthquake that resulted in the death of almost 300,000 people, many injuries and almost a million people losing their homes. CESSA was developed by Father Wismick in response to the earthquake to provide psychological services to traumatized people, marginalized groups and disadvantaged communities affected by natural disasters, violence, insecurity, social exclusion and poverty .

In 2014, McGee established what would become a long-standing relationship with Jean-Charles, CESSA and the people of Haiti, supporting their educational mission on spirituality and mental health and offering a workshop at their annual summer conference. Then, with the onset of the pandemic and the introduction of a whole new set of obstacles in 2020, Jean-Charles contacted McGee to create the multi-stakeholder initiative.

“Father Wismick contacted me in March 2020 to let me know that his organization’s counselors and psychologists were extremely concerned about the level of stress and emotional impact the COVID-19 pandemic was having in Haiti,” said said McGee. “He asked me if I would collaborate with him and our Haitian colleagues to develop and pilot telepsychology services with the goal of safely giving information and providing emotional support to the Haitian people.”

While planning took place from March to April 2020, McGee said the actual case study took place from May to November 2020. During the six-month period for which they received funding, they had 12 counselors who provided services from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, providing a confidential place where people can call for emotional support and up-to-date information on the pandemic.

“All of the counselors chosen to participate in the telepsychology initiative were professionals with excellent technical training and cultural and emotional competence,” McGee said. “Everyone was Haitian, and most of them had served as advisers since the earthquake, if not before. Before they went into the field, we worked closely with the counselors to provide information on telepsychology best practices and had many discussions about ways to adapt these best practices for use in the unique Haitian context.

McGee said the services were open to everyone, although they were primarily for frontline healthcare workers and community members. She said they made the opportunity known through grassroots efforts and communications.

“CESSA publicized telepsychology services by posting flyers to churches, temples and schools,” McGee said. “Talking to Father Wismick, it seems word of mouth is how people started to feel comfortable participating or receiving services.”

According to Emerald, counselors delivered 701 sessions, including 193 for frontline healthcare workers and the remaining 508 for community members. McGee said community members who received services were largely teachers and women.

“We found that community members were more likely to seek help than frontline health workers, and the reason is probably pretty obvious,” McGee said. “Frontline health workers had to step up to meet the needs of the community because of the pandemic, so it was very difficult for them to afford to pull away for support, although I would say they had probably needs more support than anyone.

McGee said the services addressed a wide variety of needs. Topics included information on how to prevent COVID-19, ideas for self-care, empowerment techniques, and strategies to reduce fear, stress, and anxiety. McGee said the services were also uniquely tailored to Haitian culture, particularly regarding the challenges of coping with social isolation.

“In Haiti, it’s a collective society, and people hang out most of the time in the community,” McGee said. “All of a sudden you’re being asked to be isolated and alone, and it’s so against their culture that there’s been a lot of suffering because of the social isolation.”

However, McGee said he encountered several obstacles while implementing the initiative, such as people’s initial reluctance to be vulnerable and seek help.

“There’s a stigma around asking for psychological or emotional support, and I think that was another issue,” McGee said. “But what was remarkable was that week after week more and more people were calling, and they kept calling, so people really wanted counselors to listen to them and provide support.”

Importantly, McGee said the initiative taught them that the service was culturally acceptable and logistically feasible. She said using a multi-stakeholder approach – which involves members of local and international governmental and non-governmental organizations – was a critical part of her success.

“It has to be the community, the people, who develop the services in the way they think is most useful in their context,” McGee said. “It’s important that services are based on what the community says they need, rather than someone coming from outside and saying to a community, ‘Here’s what you need help with and what’s happening in your community.’ Although outside organizations can work alongside communities, for services to be effective and sustainable, the community must be intimately involved in all aspects of project development.

Findings from the initial case study were published in the Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice in February 2022. McGee said the initiative was able to reach people who had never considered the services mental health before – something she hopes can still be implemented in Haiti and even adapted to other countries.

“We believe this case study provides valuable lessons for mental health training and program development in other countries that have limited mental health resources,” McGee said. “However, it is very important that careful work is done, specific to the context of each country and the various groups of people within a country.”

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