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Growing up in Miami with relatives living in Haiti, it seems as if natural disasters have always been an indirect reality in Elizabeth Louis’ life.

But Hurricane Matthew’s wrath in summer 2016 resulted in devastation in a host of locales, including parts of the Southeastern U.S., Cuba, and Haiti, among many other areas. Like everyone else, Elizabeth could see the destruction of homes, farms, businesses, and infrastructure, but she also saw something many did not—mental health distress.

“I was unprepared to witness the devastation left by Hurricane Matthew,” says Elizabeth, a Ph.D. candidate in counseling psychology who expects to graduate in 2019. “As I tried to process the heroic stories of survival from fellow Haitians and family alike, it seemed to me that Haiti lacked effective national awareness campaigns and disaster response. From the anecdotes I heard, signs of mental health distress were apparent.”

Elizabeth’s dissertation investigates mental health professionals involved in disaster work and the possible biases that may occur upon interaction with victims and survivors.

“The effects of disasters can lead to maladaptive responses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, phobias, and suicide,” she says. “Culturally appropriate training can help Haitians better integrate disaster planning into their professions, communities, and homes, which can alleviate negative mental health outcomes.”

Elizabeth plans to spend 10 months in Haiti, continuing her language studies and partnering with various nongovernmental agencies—Partners in Health among them—providing health care, mental health services, and disaster prevention training.

“I will work with Partners In Heath to develop a wellness program for Haitian residency doctors, engage in mental health work within the hospital setting, provide mental health training, conduct research that's related to mental well-being, take classes to strengthen my Haitian Creole skills, and work with a university in supporting psychology students,” says Elizabeth, who earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Georgetown and has worked extensively as a volunteer for the American Red Cross.

Elizabeth’s career plans include working as a psychologist in an international setting, conducting trauma, disaster prevention, and relief work, preferably in Haiti or developing countries.

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