By Misty Buswell, Save the Children, Jordan
After nearly six years of conflict in Syria, the physical scars of war are obvious on countless shattered buildings and bodies. The mental toll of living through 2,190 days of brutal violence, particularly for children who have grown up in its shadow, is harder to fathom. For some there are outward signs – children who lose the ability to speak, who wet themselves or scream when they hear a loud noise. For others the signs are subtler, including terrors in the night and withdrawal or aggression during the day. But, as a new report makes clear, we are seeing a mental health crisis among Syrian children and if we do not act now, it will be very difficult to undo the damage done.
For the first time in the conflict, research into children’s mental health inside Syria by Save the Children has shone a light onto its toxic impact. Hundreds of children, adolescents and adults were interviewed across seven of the country’s fourteen governorates for the ‘Invisible Wounds’ report. Their stories were able to translate invisible wounds into a very real picture of lives changed for ever.
At least 3 million Syrian children under the age of six have known nothing but war and millions more have grown up in fear under the shadow of conflict. The new research makes clear that ongoing bombing and shelling, including the threatening sound of warplanes circling overhead day and night, is the main cause of psychological stress and upset in children’s daily lives. Half of the children interviewed say they never or rarely feel safe at school and 40% say they don’t feel safe to play outside, even right outside their own home, while almost all adults say children’s behavior has become more fearful and nervous as the war goes on.
The prevailing framework of children’s mental health in conflict focuses almost exclusively on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), despite the reality that for the children of Syria there is no “post”. Instead, we need to better understand what six years of continual suffering from ‘toxic stress’ means for Syrian children. Toxic stress is defined as the “most dangerous form of stress response” that can occur when children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support.
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