A new report by Save the Children provides much-needed data to support anecdotal evidence of a mental-health crisis among Syria’s young refugees.
In the past when Al-Fanar Media has reported on this issue, it was challenging to find reliable statistics and datasets to quantify the problem. Instead, reporters largely relied on expert opinion and testimony, which highlighted a looming catastrophe, with millions of the Middle East’s teenage refugees at risk of developing serious mental health disorders—problems that will persist and worsen in adult years if they continued to be ignored.[See related story: Refugee Youth Traumatized by War: Overwhelmed, Understudied]
The statistics from the report present a distressing image.
For example, 84 percent of parents say bombings are causing psychological stress in their children, and 89 percent say their children have become more fearful and nervous as a result.
“The refugee crisis is a children’s crisis,” says Selcuk Sirin, a psychologist at New York University whose work focuses on the mental health of refugee children.
Perhaps more worryingly, the report confirmed and documented the chronic lack of resources available to tackle the issue. There are only about 70 psychiatrists working in Syria at the moment, most of whom are in Damascus—just two psychiatrists cover the vast Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a areas where 1.4 million people live.
“The number of professionals who are available to work with these children, and the resources for health or education, are nowhere close to meeting demand,” says Sirin.[See related story: How to Help Refugee Youth Recover From Trauma]
Save the Children spoke to 458 adults and minors in seven of Syria’s 14 governorates, which makes this report the largest and most comprehensive study on young people’s mental health in Syria since the war began, according to the British charity.
“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,” said Saif from rural Aleppo, one of the teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 who were interviewed by Save the Children.
Tarek is from Eastern Ghouta and of a similar age: “When I sit alone and start to think, my stomach starts to hurt. This is when I really understand the situation I’m in, when I really think about it.”
The interviews took place between December of last year and February 2017.
The research also involved 17 focus groups with 125 minors separated into four age groups (5-7, 8-11, 12-14, and 15-17) with the older cohorts split by gender. The work was carried out with trained professionals who were able to offer psychological first aid to the young people involved in the study who needed it.
While the charity was able to conduct their investigations in rebel-held locations such as Aleppo, Dara’a, Homs, Idlib and parts of Damascus, they were unable to reach children in ISIS-held or government-controlled areas. But the report says adolescents and children in those parts of Syria are likely to be suffering in similar ways.
The study calls for an immediate end to hostilities surrounding schools and hospitals, a commitment to ending the recruitment of fighters under the age of 18, and the free movement of people to allow civilians to escape the battlefield—which seems a tall order at the time of writing.