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How war has inflamed the child mental health crisis in Syria

How war has inflamed the child mental health crisis in Syria
5 min read
23 January, 2024
Civil war and displacement have magnified the mental health crisis faced by Syrian children, impacting their cognitive, psychosocial and emotional development.

Syrian children are experiencing a mental health crisis due to persistent exposure to traumatic events such as war and displacement. 

One in every six children around the world lives in conflict and war zones. More than 100 million people around the world, half of them children, face the risk of forcible displacement due to the wars raging in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Palestine and other countries.

According to a study published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, events like violence, losing loved ones, being separated from family and facing uncertainty about the future have made children more vulnerable to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Traumatic events

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the 12-year war in Syria has caused the displacement of more than 13 million Syrians — both inside or outside Syrian territory — representing 27% of the world’s refugees. 

Gustav Grædback, the lead author of the paper and Professor of Developmental Psychology at Uppsala University in Sweden, said that the study reveals worrying trends in family dynamics. Mental health problems, poor parenting practices, and environmental stresses — such as lack of water and food insecurity — have aggravated the challenges children face in host countries.

The paper reveals that Syrian refugees are more vulnerable to traumatic events, such as legal status, mobility, lack of social support, lack of shelter, lack of security, and exploitation, which expose them to physical and psychological harm.

“Experiences of war as well as traumatic experiments and uncertainties connected to displacement is one important factor that affects the mental health of refugee children,” Grædback told The New Arab.

Syrians might start to heal when safety is guaranteed. But until they are provided with a safe environment, all psychological support, therapy, and medicine will not help [Getty Images]

The study also showed higher rates of depression among adult Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring Syria, compared to Syrian refugees in Western countries. 

Professor Mohamed Abdel Rahman, Professor of Mental Health at Egypt’s Zagazig University explained to The New Arab that displacement has a direct negative impact on the pyramid of psychological needs, the base of which focuses on basic needs such as food and drink, safety needs such as physical safety, family and health security, and social needs such as friendship and family relationships.

In 2017, Save the Children issued a study exploring how Iraqi children’s experiences of violence and displacement have impacted their mental health and psychosocial needs. The study revealed that children who have fled talked of “monsters”, “dead bodies in the streets,” bloodied faces, and bombs falling on their homes. 

Syrian mothers also suffer 

The author of the paper added that the mental health of the children’s mothers is another important factor as war impacts how mothers interact with their children, their parenting style, and the mental energy that is available to be a good enough parent. “The latter is connected to children’s well-being and their cognitive and emotional development capacities that are important throughout life.”  

For children, the cumulative stresses linked with being a refugee are associated with poor mental health and delayed development in many areas, including cognitive functioning, emotion regulation, and emotional processing.

Professor Amr Ali, Professor of Mental Health at Port Said University in Egypt explained to The New Arab that maternal post-traumatic stress and overall psychological distress were directly and indirectly correlated with exposure to war-related events, as well as with everyday stressors. 

Previous research published in 2018 by the University of Cambridge illustrated that negative parenting and psychosocial challenges in children were directly correlated with mothers' overall psychological discomfort. The paper revealed that the relationship between overall psychological discomfort in mothers and psychosocial issues in children is mediated by negative parenting. 

Professor Ali told The New Arab that the detrimental impacts of prolonged displacement and trauma from wars on the mental health of refugee mothers may raise the likelihood of unfavourable parenting practices, which may lead to worse psychosocial results for their offspring. 

When asked whether refugee and displaced children in Gaza, Sudan and other countries face the same mental health challenges as Syrian children, Professor Ali commented: “We do not currently know this as data is so scarce that a comparison between communities is not easy. However, we see tentative similarities when comparing conflicts across the globe.”

Supporting children via mothers

“We are currently exploring the possibility of supporting mothers and via them impacting and supporting children,” says Grædback. 

The authors concentrated on Syrian refugees because the country's conflict has caused the greatest refugee crisis in modern history.  However, they also made reference comparisons with other ongoing major conflicts, like those in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, “so this review is pertinent not only to the Syrian conflict but to children affected by war in general, Professor Grædback concluded. 

Professor Abdul Rahman adds that displacement centres can provide the basic needs of children, but they often fail to meet emotional needs, which affects the children’s psychological identity and makes them more vulnerable to acquiring behaviours such as unjustified cruelty, excessive kindness, or introversion.

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Interventions should focus on psychosocial and parenting support for war-affected caregivers, as well as address structural challenges that debilitate caregiver and child mental health, according to Professor Ali. 

Experts stressed the need to pay attention to measures to improve the well-being and mental health of children and adolescents affected by wars and armed conflicts.

Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor at Daily News Egypt. His work has appeared in Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other prominent regional and international media outlets

Follow him on Twitter: @MOHAMMED2SAID