Save the Children has just released an unprecedented report into the mental health of children experiencing six years of civil war in Syria. The report, Invisible Wounds, reveals the insidious effects of conflict that have scarred the country’s youngest generation; a generation that will receive the legacy of a battered and broken society. Save the Children conducted numerous interviews, focus groups, and surveys with hundreds of children, parents, and aid workers, which allowed them to discover some disturbing realities. The report found that “84% of adults and almost all children said that ongoing bombing and shelling is the number one cause of psychological stress in children’s daily lives [and] 89% said children’s behaviour has become more fearful and nervous as the war goes on.” This psychological trauma is manifested and expressed in different forms, such as aggression, immense grief, and extreme levels of fear, self-harm, suicide attempts, bedwetting, stuttering, and psychosomatic symptoms, like headaches. The report warns that unless serious and committed action is taken to end the conflict and address the special needs of children, Syria’s future may be as grim and devastating as its present. Despite these findings, Save the Children believes that many of the children they spoke with still maintain hope and have dreams for themselves and their country. It is this semblance of hope that should motivate all parties of the conflict to end six years of violence.
One father interviewed by Save the Children said: “My son wakes up afraid in the middle of the night. He wakes up screaming… He has nightmares because of the war and air bombardment. Because of fear. A child was slaughtered in front of him, so he started to dream that someone is coming to slaughter him. When a child witnesses a beheading, how could he not get afraid?” This is just one of the many accounts of the daily horrors children are brought up amongst. Dr. Mohammad K. Hamza of the Syrian-American Medical Society elaborated and said, “We have talked to so many children, and their devastation is above and beyond what even soldiers are able to see in the war.” Indeed, the sheer scale of children in need of even basic assistance is startling. Geert Cappelaere, the UNICEF Regional Director for North Africa and the Middle East has noted that nearly 2 million children lack access to humanitarian assistance. He further states that, “The numbers are a grim indication that the cessation in hostilities announced last December has yet to result in gains in protection and humanitarian assistance for all children in Syria.”
The current situation of children in Syria is urgent. As the Save the Children report has indicated, the conflict must end. The psychological trauma inflicted upon, not only the children of Syria but, also their families and communities is inherently political. For example, it is political because of the severe unwillingness to end the destruction of civilian lives. Therefore, the primary responsibility lies with the Assad regime, all parties to the conflict, and the international community to seek peace and stability.
Furthermore, humanitarian funding continues to fall short and often fails to target mental health programs. This is a trend that must be reversed. A youth worker interviewed in the report appropriately observed that, “We don’t see the result of this conflict right now. 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.”
The conflict in Syria moves into its sixth year. While attempts at peace agreements and tentative ceasefires have been brokered, Syrians continue to fall at the hands of their own government. The current situation is certainly a bleak one, and so too may be the future, if key actors continue to ignore the toxic psychological trauma that has gripped Syria’s youngest generation. While further humanitarian assistance is needed, it will take committed political action to keep the remaining flickers of hope alive.
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