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Syrian children suffering 'toxic stress'

10 March 2017


Suffering from the conflict: Syrian girls who had to flee from their home village

Suffering from the conflict: Syrian girls who had to flee from their home village

IT IS not too late to prevent irreversible harm to Syrian children from the conflict in their country, a new report from Save the Children says. But Syria is at a “tipping point”, and their chances of recover­ing from the extreme stress are dwindling by the day.

The report — Invisible Wounds: The impact of six years of war on the mental health of Syrian children — is believed to be the largest study of its kind on the mental health of children living in Syria during the war. The charity and its partners managed to speak with more than 450 children and adults between December and February.

The report warns that many chil­dren are in a state of “toxic stress” — the response to experiencing “strong, frequent or prolonged ad­­versity without adequate adult support”. It was evident in reports of increases in bed-wetting, self-harm, suicide attempts, and aggres­sive or withdrawn behaviour.

At least three million Syrian children below the age of six know nothing but war. By far the biggest source of fear identified was bomb­ing, shell­ing, and “the overwhelming feeling of being unsafe”.

A psychosocial counsellor quoted in the report describes how some children lost the ability to speak, so that they continually screamed.

One child, aged 12, had taken his own life after being told that his father, killed by a car bomb, was a martyr. Another young boy re­­peated the same phrase three times, shouting louder each time: “I hate the aero­plane because it killed my dad.”

Several children spoke of wanting to take revenge for the violence inflicted on them and their family.

”After six years of war we are at a tipping point, after which the im­­pact on children’s formative years and childhood development may be so great that the damage could be permanent and irreversible,” writes Dr Marcia Brophy, one of the char­ity’s senior advisers on mental health.

”The risk of a broken gen­era­tion, lost to trauma and extreme stress, has never been greater.”

Yet the report finds “glimmers of hope” in the resilience of the chil­dren and their hopes for a better future: “That many children are still showing a range of emotions and have not yet become desensitised to the violence that surrounds them, and are still actively seeking out support from their family and social networks, suggests that we are not yet past the point of no return.”

Among the recommendations are calls for donors to fund mental-health and psycho-social program­ming, and an end to attacks on schools. Before the outbreak of the war, almost all children were en­­rolled; today almost one third are no longer in school.

Save the Children partners report that the vast areas of Eastern Ghouta and Deraa, where about 1.4 million people live, are served by just two professional psychiatrists. The charity’s centres offering psycho­social support have waiting lists. They offer treatment, including drawing, drama, and music, to help children process and communicate feelings.

“We don’t see the result of this conflict right now,” a youth worker in Idlib said, quoted in the report. “We’re going to see the results and consequences in the coming years. In ten years, we’re going to see an entire destroyed generation, uneducated or barely educated. An entire generation that’s emotionally destroyed. We need a generation that will build the new Syria.”

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