When a disaster strikes, the most immediate needs are for rescue and relief. There is the need to save lives that can still be saved, heal injuries, and provide basic needs like water, shelter, food and security for people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, searching for their dead loved ones, and trying to eke out a semblance of survival in the midst of devastation.
But time comes when the need for more than physical or material relief surfaces. Time comes when the immediate emergency will have passed and survivors are confronted with the need to come to terms with their experience, face the demands of daily life, and perhaps even begin to plan for the future, perchance to dream.
All too often, though, as with the devastation caused by Typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan), the destruction and loss of life is such that the “needs of the moment” overshadow most other needs, especially the mental and emotional. And yet, as mental health authorities assert, unless the mental and emotional problems confronted by survivors are addressed, getting them back on their feet and living productive lives will not only take longer, it may well be impossible.
A little more than a year after Yolanda struck, we as a country—the survivors especially—are still grappling with issues like shelter, employment, livelihood, education and health. These are all basic survival issues, and indeed addressing them is both urgent and necessary. But lost amid the exchange of blaming and shaming for the slow, painful progress being made is the need to work with the survivors. There is a need to bring them to an understanding of their own personal health and mindset after such a traumatic experience, the better to enable them to relate with others and, together, work toward returning their families and communities to the rhythm and routine of life before Yolanda.
* * *
“Balik Kalipay” (Return to Happiness) is the title of a video documentation of the work being carried out by the Citizens’ Network for Psychosocial Response. An ad hoc organization (with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Museo Pambata and UP Tacloban, with support from the World Health Organization) formed at the initiative of psychiatrist Dr. June Pagaduan-Lopez soon after Yolanda, the network conducts psychosocial intervention with “first responders” from Tacloban.
The “first responders” are themselves survivors of Yolanda, residents of Barangay (Village) San Jose, which can be said to be the worst hit of localities in the devastated city of Tacloban. The video, showing scenes of the damage left by the “supertyphoon,” including a field of white crosses marking the graves of those who perished from one of the world’s worst natural disasters ever, also shows scenes from a series of workshops and training sessions conducted by the network. Those who made the video hope that after sitting through it, every viewer would realize “how crucial it is to address not only the physical devastation of calamities but most especially its psychosocial impact.”
* * *
Their work, explains Pagaduan-Lopez in her voiceover in “Balik Kalipay,” begins with the inner self, getting participants to recognize, acknowledge and articulate the impact of the disaster on them, especially on their “inner lives.”
Only after processing these thoughts and feelings will the participants then be able to use them to empathize with others—their loved ones, their neighbors, their communities—and find the resources to work, together, to respond to present and future emergencies.
What struck me most, while watching “Balik Kalipay,” were the smiles on the faces of the men, women and young people taking part in the sessions. Their faces still bore traces of the trauma they must have undergone, but in unbidden moments, their eyes light up, their lips curve up in a smile, laughter even explodes from their weary bodies.
And I wondered to myself: If I were in their place, one year after Yolanda when permanent and safe housing was still a pipe dream, food and employment remained elusive, and insecurity still hounded my days, would I be able to smile and laugh with others?
The video documents various exercises that the participants go through not just to release their own torments and lingering fears but also to learn new skills in dealing with others. There are communication exercises, such as tracking how information (or disinformation) is shared in the “gossip” session, and “reading” others by “mirroring” them and listening to what they are and are not saying.
* * *
There are, as well, exercises in building trust and learning how to work better through cooperation, such as building a web of twine to show how, working together, a group can become stronger if they are united.
Having to search through their minds and hearts to bring back memories they had pushed to the back of their minds couldn’t have been pleasant for these folk who’ve spent the last year or so “rebuilding” their lives. But I am sure the exercises, and working with their neighbors who shared the same experiences, also provide a respite from having to stew in their misery and dig up old resentments and regrets.
And this, says Pagaduan-Lopez, is their ultimate goal: To get every survivor to acknowledge his/her pain and, overcoming it, reach out to friends and neighbors to plan, act and dream together to truly “respond” to any need that calls for their joint efforts and goodwill.
It’s a cliché, this adage about rising from the ashes of tragedy and loss to reconstruct new lives. But “Balik Kalipay” shows that it CAN be done, but only if we begin from the inner person and reach out toward the family and community.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.