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Published on June 6th, 2016 | from CAMH

The Best of Both Worlds: Lessons about therapy through Vodou storytelling

By Michael-Jane Levitan, Special Advisor, Office of Transformative Global Health

On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake changed the lives of over 10 million people in Haiti. Six years later, major trauma and grief continue to overload a severely strained health system with only a handful of trained mental health professionals, creating a huge gap between mental health needs and available support.

Common practice for provision of medicines in the community

Providing the bulk of care are an estimated 60,000 Vodou priests in Haiti. It is commonly reported that the Haitian population is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou, due to significant overlap with other belief systems. With such ubiquity, community members commonly first turn to Vodou for social support and healing.

Card reader at Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage

For the past two years, the Office of Transformative Global Health (OTGH) has been working on a Grand Challenges Canada project to build capacity of spiritual leaders (Catholic, Protestant and Vodou) in Haiti. The goal is to promote a culture of mental health care among informal care practitioners by blending the best of both worlds: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and cultural practice. You can read more about the project phases here:

Part 1: Laying the groundwork through relationship building

Part 2: Information sharing and cultural adaptation process

Part 3: Using creative arts to train Haitian spiritual leaders on therapy for “crooked” thoughts

As we enter the final phase of the project, we’re faced with these important questions:

  • How can we best support our community partners after the project ends?
  • How can we continue to foster learning with ongoing resources?
  • How can we improve the accessibility of mental health information?

Despite its pervasiveness in Haiti, Vodou is highly marginalized, with limited public recognition and socioeconomic support. This paradoxical reality poses significant barriers in access to care for those within the community. The commitment of this community presents an important opportunity in building capacity among those most in need and with the widest potential reach.

Our Vodou community partners have expressed great determination to sustain momentum after the project comes to a close.  In support, the OTGH wants to ensure the Vodou community has the tools needed to continue learning in a way that is congruent with cultural traditions and practices. We plan to transform the CBT manual (culturally adapted in an earlier project phase) into a more engaging and interactive educational resource specifically geared to local contexts.

As we’ve learned throughout the intervention, storytelling has been a consistent and driving force with our Vodou partners. Building on this finding, we plan to harness the value of storytelling as tool for information sharing by creating an educational film that blends real stories about Vodou treatment practices with lessons about mental health and therapy. The films will be shared with a number of lakous (supportive Vodou collectives) and other Vodou temples in Haiti. Accompanying the film will be a set of reflection questions that guide learning and stimulate discussion.

Guédé ceremony (Festival of the Dead)

By integrating lessons about mental health and therapy with local practice, we aim to produce an engaging, relevant and equitable resource that caters to diverse learning styles. Moreover, as only 60.7 % of the Haitian population can read and write, it’s also an effective way to overcome educational barriers in accessing mental health information among non-literate groups and ultimately extend the reach of impact.

Typical Vodou ceremony, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

On July 4, 2016, the OTGH and its partners are pleased to launch the Best of Both Worlds – a crowdfunding campaign meant to raise funds to support this exciting initiative. Stay tuned for updates as we count down the days!

Also, join us on July 28 to learn about authentic Vodou practice and its connection to mental health with Widner Dumay, a Vodou priest from Haiti. Click here or contact us via email to register for a special ticket price.

Widner Dumay, Vodou Priest & project advisor, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Interested in supporting or getting involved? Email bestofbothworlds@camh.ca or follow @akwatukhenti on Twitter

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