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Mental Health in the Heart of Guatemala

When I looked through all the colorful photos I took while on my most recent Dean’s Beans development trip to Guatemala, this one stuck out the most. It wasn’t the prettiest picture I took (I mean, I got some beauties!), nor the most vibrant (it was Holy Week in Guatemala!), but what is happening in this photo is by far the most meaningful.

What we are witnessing here is no small feat. This is a picture (above) from a home-visit in a remote mountain village to check up on a new mom and her baby (the little guy is strapped to her back). What makes the visit so extraordinary is that Ingrid, a Mayan community health promoter, is delivering direct health services to another Mayan woman in their own Mayan language. This direct, language inclusive health service from the Mayan Health Alliance (known as Wuqu’kawoq) is the only health organization in Guatemala providing home based health care to indigenous populations in their own Mayan languages. This women’s health program is one of many in their comprehensive health care programming which includes primary and women’s health services, nutrition and early child development, treatment and support for chronic disease, medical case management services and clean water education.

In addition to culturally inclusive services, Ingrid, like all the community outreach workers at Wuqu’kawoq, have also become role models for the future generation of girls in a country where 70% of indigenous girls do not make it past 6th grade. This is revolutionary healthcare and it is having a profound and lasting impact on how indigenous women raise their children, support each other, and inspire the next generation.

Our exciting new Dean’s Beans Project, in co-creation with Wuqu’kawoq, is all about supporting health promotors like Ingrid and in turn the thousands of indigenous people they serve. Dean’s Beans sent three social workers to Guatemala (Annette Cycon, Jean Marie Walker and myself) for 10 days to prep, introduce and facilitate trainings in Annette’s Group Peer Support Model (GPS). GPS is a powerful and effective group support model that focuses on social support groups to address isolation, mental health concerns, self-esteem building and women’s empowerment.

Alison adding floral fun to an alfombre

Our GPS training preparation started in Antigua during Semana Santa (Holy Week) amongst the swirl of incense, music, processions and deep acts of religious devotion. We would look up from our study material and head out to the streets to witness elaborate processions with devotees carrying floats depicting the final days of Jesus’s life. We also walked streets lined with beautiful alfombres (decorative carpets) made up of sand, wood chips, flowers, and fruit. It was a magical and memorable experience to jump start an awe-inspiring trip to Guatemala.

Our first training day with Wuqu’kawoq started early as we headed high into the mountains, above the clouds, on a 2 ½ hour trip to the tiny town of Paquip. There we found our way to the nutrition cooking class, led by nutrition technician Magali Batz. These in-community classes and home visits were established to deal with Guatemala's pervasive childhood malnourishment problem. Magali focused on teaching about the benefits of breastfeeding, the importance of vitamins and boiling water. At the end of class the woman served lunch. They all ate half of their portions and wrapped the rest in a bowl covered in bright cloth to take home. Although at first we thought it was to share with their families, we learned later from Magali that it was to prove to their husbands and mother-in-laws that they had indeed gone to class. This was another example of the oppressive conditions many women face in a country where gender based violence are at epidemic levels.

Magali (a nutrition health promoter) reviewing nutrition information with young mothers. Guatemalan children suffer the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the entire world.

After nutrition class, we returned to Tecpan, to the headquarters of Wuqu’kawoq, to meet with the team leading the way for the Mayan Health Alliance in Guatemala. These incredible leaders included the Executive Director, Anne Kraemer Diaz, Medical Director, Dr. Waleska Lopez Canu, Director of Women’s Health and Diabetes Services, Sandy Mux, and Direction of Nutrition, Andrea Guzman Abril. We shared our thoughts about how the GPS model can be easily integrated into their educational programs (like the nutrition class we just saw) and we spent the afternoon collaborating and adapting the GPS model to reflect their cultural realties and strengths.

Our collaboration led to an opportunity to hold a GPS Group with the staff of Wuqu’kawoq. We found common connections as we shared stories of the important women in our lives. We reflected on our own strengths and the strengths of our ancestors. After the group, we trained three dynamic leaders and the next day spent more time in training and learning. Our collaboration was the highlight of the trip! With Angela Gonzales (a budding social worker and the Maya Health Alliance’s operations manager) and Andrea Guzman April, we spent hours discussing the importance of mental health support and women’s wellness. We also explored the underlying difficulties of women’s oppression in Guatemalan culture and within indigenous populations. We focused on creating realistic supports to help mitigate the negative effects of systemic, internalized and generational oppression. We also highlighted and celebrated the inherent strengths of these women. As a result of our conversation with staff, they are considering using the support model in their own staff and team meetings. We all know the debilitating effects of compassion fatigue!

Our trip ended back in Antigua. The crowds gone. The streets swept. What remains is our new and exciting relationship with the brilliant staff of Wuqu’kawoq. We are energized and grateful for the ongoing collaboration with them and the beautiful people of Guatemala.

Grass roots community mental health – in the field and on the road!

Drink Deep! Alison

P.S Check out some of our Limited Edition Guatemalan Renacimiento - a delicious crop from the lush valleys of Solola!

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