The Archer sisters, Kettie and Evelyn, are delicate and petite, their frames each barely topping 100 pounds. But after losing their two clinics in the earthquake last January, and finding new avenues to help hundreds of fellow Haitians, it is safe to say that nothing about their strength or courage is small.
In the past year, these sisters have prevented teen suicides, saved children from abuse, and fostered community acceptance and understanding for mental health disorders in a country where the mentally ill are often misunderstood and marginalized.
Both driven by the desire to help others, Kettie and Evelyn owned their own health practices before the earthquake. The elder, Kettie, who has a master’s in psychology, ran a health clinic that provided psychological assessment of children before they were adopted, as well as therapy for those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions. Evelyn owned a dental practice for seven years.
“I found my dream, and then my business collapsed,” says Evelyn. “This was my profession.”
Fortunately, no one was killed at either clinic, but both women, like so many in Haiti, found themselves without work, after years of pouring hours and heart into businesses that were demolished in seconds. “But I was grateful to be alive,” says Kettie, who was teaching at a local university where many students died and were injured.
A few days after the earthquake, a friend suggested to Kettie that she visit the General Hospital and meet with International Medical Corps, whose emergency response physicians and nurses were working to save lives in the aftermath of the disaster. There, she found an opportunity to join International Medical Corps’ mental health team, which she is still a part of today. Evelyn then joined her sister on the mental health team about two months later.
“Since childhood, I have enjoyed helping people,” says Evelyn. “Right after the earthquake, I wanted to help.”
Since joining International Medical Corps, the Archer sisters have been trained to handle a wide scope of mental health issues, from anxiety to severe depression. With this information, they have gone on to touch the lives of hundreds of Haitians needing mental and emotional support following the quake.
“I have had the chance to train a lot of people,” says Kettie. “I am now able to teach groups of people what to do in different situations…like how to behave toward a person with epilepsy.”
While in university, Kettie gained a lot of theoretical knowledge, but it wasn’t until she started receiving weekly trainings from International Medical Corps on how to address psychological problems was she able to turn theory into action. “Wherever I go for trainings, people ask me to come back,” Kettie says.
For Evelyn, she feels the trainings have given her new skills to make a difference in communities. “In Haiti, there are many taboos around mental health,” she says. “Sometimes they think it is voodoo. I have learned a lot and have been able to change a lot of views and give people the knowledge to help.”
It is with this knowledge that Evelyn was able to make a successful suicide intervention for a teenage girl. “One reason why I love mental health work is that it allowed me to help a 14-year-old girl who wanted to commit suicide,” Evelyn says. “Thanks to the depression training, I knew that black ideas are an emergency. I questioned her about things that were important in her life. If she died, was there someone in her life that it would really affect?”
The girl said while her mother would not care, her father would be devastated if she took her own life. “I told her that she cannot do this to her father,” she says. “I offered myself as her friend. …We speak on the phone often.”
Another close call came after a small team of International Medical Corps community mental health volunteers found a child abandoned by his parents and living at a site where he was being abused. “I went to visit the site on a Saturday and found the child on the roof,” says Evelyn. “He told me that he was mistreated and that these were not his parents.”
With the help of International Medical Corps’ Mental Health Coordinator, Dr. Sherese Ali, and officials from UNICEF, Evelyn was able to find the boy a new place live, where he was safe and no longer abused.
“Three months went by and I was in my mental health clinic when a woman came in crying,” says Evelyn. “She hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for saving my son’s life.’” It was the boy’s mother. She had found the resources to be able to reunite with her child. She had been looking for Evelyn for months to thank her for what she did for her son.
Both Kettie and Evelyn are incredibly proud of the work they have done over the past year, and are deeply grateful to now have a new set of skills and knowledge to make a difference in their country.
For Evelyn, she sees herself working in mental health over the long-term. “I felt comfortable working as a dentist,” says Evelyn. “But now I have training in community development… [and] have new tools to work with.”
Kettie sees herself re-establishing her practice over time. “I will be able to work better when I do,” she says. “With the speed I am now working, in a year, I will have so much more experience to help people, thanks to International Medical Corps.
Reflecting on their work this past year, Kettie says: “I feel like we have brought hope to the hopeless.”