Dr. Guerda Nicolas explained that climate change could mean a continuous state of psychological trauma for some affected communities. (Photo: UN Web TV)

NEW YORK CITY — With climate change expected to bring more frequent natural disasters to the Caribbean, mental health experts are changing the way they talk about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sometimes, they say, there is no “post.”

“We’re talking about ongoing, continuous, complex trauma,” said Dr. Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian-American psychology professor at the University of Miami who co-founded the Ayiti Community Trust, a foundation in Haiti that provides grants for non-profit organisations. “That is around and that absolutely is necessary for us to address at all ages.”

The interlocking issues of unemployment, mental health and education are all crucial to advancing sustainable development in the Caribbean, Dr. Nicolas and other speakers explained during a panel themed “Garnering Philanthropic/Private Sector Support to Achieve Sustainable Development Goals in the Caribbean” on Sept. 27 at the United Nations in New York City.

Dr. Nicolas mentioned that mental health is linked to many of the issues facing the Caribbean, including climate change, poverty and natural disasters.

“What does it mean psychologically to lose your home? What does it mean psychologically for you to lose your community? What does it mean psychologically for you to lose what you are familiar with? And what does it mean for you to not necessarily be able to find individuals?” she asked. “There’s a difference between the ability for me to bury somebody, and then what does it mean when I can’t find them to begin with, to bury them? What is the psychological impact of that?”

Mental health experts in the VI have echoed similar sentiments. Dr. Virginia Rubaine, director of community mental health at the BVI Health Services Authority, told the Beacon in July that many residents are only beginning to grapple with the mental health impacts of the 2017 storms, which in many cases have been exacerbated by continuing problems of home damage, unemployment and financial insecurity.

Dr. Rubaine estimated that it takes ten years to fully recover from an event like Irma, during which time another disaster is likely to occur.

Addressing such issues, Dr. Nicolas said, requires looking at the web of social factors that contribute to mental health. For example, she pointed to a UNICEF study in Jamaica that found that more than 80 percent of young people in the country face psychological or physical violence.

Poverty can also compound such issues, because victims of a natural disaster can’t easily move from one place to another, and may have to stay in a shelter, she explained.

Economic development

In his studies at Princeton University on poverty in the Caribbean, Jamaica native Menelik Graham has focused on the potential of social-impact investing.

Being legally considered an “accredited investor” in the United States, he explained, requires someone to meet certain benchmarks, such as having a net worth exceeding $1 million. And only “accredited investors” are permitted to invest in riskier enterprises such as hedge funds, private equity firms and venture capital firms — “the type of assets that have the most return,” he said.

Few members of the Caribbean diaspora, he said, have been able to reach that threshold to then invest back in their home countries.

“What I’m trying to figure out is, how can you create a risk-reward profile that makes the Caribbean attractive for social impact investing?” he said. “Does that mean that we’ll probably have to decrease the risk? Does that mean that we’ll have to increase liquidity in some of the investments?”

Grace Burnett, CEO of GraceKennedy Financial Group in Jamaica, said another way to boost economic development is through business loans tailored to specific industries, such as transportation or agriculture.

Mr. Graham also talked about unemployment in the Caribbean as a cause of “brain drain.”

He said when he was doing his thesis at the University of the West Indies last year, one of the biggest complaints he noticed was a lack of job opportunities that fit the skill sets of graduating students.

“Obviously, the next move to that is ‘Well, if they’re not in the Caribbean I must go abroad,’” he said. “And that kind of thought process is going to create a huge problem of brain drain where we have a lot of talented people who should be moving the Caribbean forward, who should be leading us into that next stage, are leaving to go abroad for the opportunities that fit their skill set.”

Rosalea Hamilton — CEO of the LASCO Chin Foundation, a charitable organisation in Jamaica — pointed out that the unemployment rate in the Caribbean overall is about 25 percent, and reaches as high as 70-80 percent in some communities.


Another panelist, Chaz Garraway, a Bahamian native and climate activist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, pointed out that economic development also ties in to climate change adaptation.

Economic diversification is crucial, he said, so that islands are not entirely dependent on the tourism industry when a storm hits.

He added that education in skills like leadership, project management and environmental conservation are also key to building a more sustainable economy.

Kiran Maharaj, president and co-founder of the Trinidad-based Media Institute of the Caribbean, noted that the media plays a crucial role in educating the public about such issues.

“It is about creating literacy at all levels of society,” she said. “It’s not just about the traditional and digital media anymore. We have to remember that we are impacting lives at all stages. And so the media is pivotal.”

Private sector

Lascelles Chin, founder and executive chairman of LASCO Affiliated Companies in Jamaica, acknowledged that it is time for private sector leaders to “put our money where our mouth is” in regards to financing climate adaptation.

“The voice of the youth led by young Greta Thunberg is a clarion call for all of us in the Caribbean to awaken from our complacency and to do the right thing for future generations,” he said, referencing the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who sparked an international youth movement of protests calling for immediate action to address climate change.

He went on to announce that companies across the Caribbean, including his own and GraceKennedy, had committed funding to form a strategic partnership through the Caribbean Philanthropic Alliance to harness the resources required to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals over the next 10 years.