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Syrian children in “toxic” mental health crisis

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​Civil war in the middle east country is taking a huge psychological toll on children

A leading international aid charity has warned of a mental health crisis among children trapped in Syria, as the war approaches its six year mark.

Save the Children and its Syrian partners interviewed more than 450 children, adolescents and adults across seven areas in Syria for Invisible Wounds, the largest study of its kind conducted during the course of the conflict.

It found that many children are living in an almost constant state of fear, terrified by shelling, airstrikes and ongoing violence, with devastating psychological consequences.

Mental health experts consulted for the report said it showed children are suffering from a condition called "toxic stress", which can occur when children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity¸ such as the extreme violence occurring in the Syria conflict.

Continuous toxic stress response can have a life-long impact on children’s mental and physical health.

Syrian children in “toxic” mental health crisis

We notice that they are always stressed and react to any unfamiliar noise

Layla, 5, and her brother Saeed, 3, inside an abandoned petrol station where he and his family now live

The research revealed how the war has ruined childhoods. Almost half of children interviewed said they did not feel safe at school or playing outside.

In interviews and focus groups, it was found that 78% of children feel grief and extreme sadness some or all of the time and almost all adults said children had become more nervous or fearful as the war has gone on.

However, many doctors and professionals have fled the country, and the relentless bombing and blocks on aid workers reaching the worst hit areas means there is little official provision for mental health services.

And where they exist, social stigma often prevents people accessing them.

Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, said: “What this research shows is that we are witnessing a mental health crisis among children brought about by six years of war in Syria. Children are soiling themselves when they hear a loud noise, terrified to play outside, afraid to go to school but worried that their futures are being ruined without an education.

“It is a tragedy that can’t be allowed to continue – we can end the toxic stress many children are suffering by stopping the bombardment of civilian areas and reaching everyone with life-saving aid and psychological support.”

Zeinab, aged 12, at a displaced persons camp in Hassakeh in north-east Syria, said children like him have only known war.

“I feel like I’ve seen so many terrible things,” he said. “I lost out on two years of school, and my brother has grown up and has hardly studied at all. What if I get old and I continue on this same path and I lose out on my entire future?”

The constant psychological strain on children has manifested itself in bed wetting, involuntarily urination in public, speech impediments and children losing the ability to speak altogether, increased aggression and substance abuse, the report states.

Communities and professionals also report a rise in self harm and suicide attempts among children as young as 12.

Mohammed, an aid worker with Save the Children partner Shafak in Idlib, said: “I’m working in an area where people could die at any moment, and this lack of safety and security is leading to a lot of psychological problems in children.

“We notice that they are always stressed and react to any unfamiliar noise, if a chair moves or the door bangs, because of their fear of the sound of airplanes and rockets. Children are increasingly isolated and don’t like to participate in our activities, and in the young children we’re seeing a lot of cases of involuntary urination.”

In addition to an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated end to the violence, Save the Children is calling for all parties to stop using explosive weapons in populated areas and attacking civilian infrastructure like schools and hospitals as well calling for unrestricted humanitarian access to all areas.