Invisible wounds: Syria’s child mental health crisis
Monday 6 March 2017
Shelling, airstrikes and the ongoing violence are having a devastating psychological impact on Syria’s children.
Our new report, Invisible Wounds – the largest study of its kind conducted during the course of the civil war which started six years ago next Wednesday – has revealed a terrifying mental health crisis among children trapped in Syria.
We interviewed more than 450 children and adults from seven of Syria’s 14 regions. Their testimonies reveal heartbreaking stories of children living in almost constant fear.
Self-harm and suicide attempts
Those we spoke to described increases in self-harm, suicide attempts, bedwetting, speech problems and aggressive or withdrawn behaviour.
Eighty-nine per cent of those interviewed said children have become more fearful and nervous as the war has gone on.
Mental health experts have also warned that Syrian children are showing signs of ‘toxic stress’, which can lead to developmental issues and lifelong health problems.
Severe emotional distress
After almost six years of war, two out of every three children in Syria has lost a loved one, had their home bombed or been injured.
Many have seen friends or family members killed in front of them.
Saif*, a teenager from rural Aleppo, told us: “I get angry when someone in my family or my friends die.
“My chest hurts and I can’t breathe, so I sit alone because I don’t want to scream at anyone or hit anyone.”
An aid worker in the besieged town of Madaya described how children are “psychologically crushed and tired”, saying: “When we do activities like singing with them, they don’t respond at all.
“They draw images of children being butchered in the war, or tanks, or the siege and the lack of food.”
Children’s emotional distress is compounded by dire shortages of food, clean water and medical care.
Hala, a teacher from Madaya told us that children “wish they were hit by a sniper, because if they got injured they would go to the hospital and leave the siege and eat whatever they want.”
Experts warn that prolonged exposure to traumatic events, such as bombing and violence, is putting Syrian children at high risk of toxic stress – the most dangerous form of stress response.
According to Alexandra Chen, Child Protection and Mental Health Specialist at Harvard University, this is likely to have a life-long and devastating impact on these children’s mental and physical health.
It disrupts the development of the brain and other organs and increases the risk of heart disease, substance abuse, depression and other mental health disorders into adulthood.
A tipping point
As the six-year anniversary of Syria’s war approaches, the country’s child mental health crisis is reaching a tipping point.
With family support structures and official services collapsing, children’s chances of recovering fully are dwindling by the day.
Dr Marcia Brophy, our Senior Middle East Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Adviser, says: “We are failing children inside Syria, some of whom are being left to cope with harrowing experiences – from witnessing their parents killed in front of them to the horrors of life under siege – without proper support.
“We need to ensure that children who have already lost six years of their lives to war don’t have to lose their whole future as well.”
A generation at risk
Our work in Syria has shown us that with the right support and early interventions, children can recover from traumatic experiences.
But if we don’t act now, we risk losing a generation of Syrian children to the terror of war.
That’s why we’re calling for the UN to step up and help bring about an immediate ceasefire. Until this happens, children can’t begin to come to terms with the horrors they’ve been through.
Funding must also be found for child protection and psychosocial programmes to help children cope with everything they’ve experienced.
And the voices of Syria’s children must be heard on the international stage. Children are Syria’s future – they must be given a chance to reshape their country.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.