New Study Documents Psychological Horrors of Six-Year War on Syrian Children

Save the Children Report Cites Growing Mental Health Crisis

Invisible Wounds Report Photo

Photo Credit: Save the Children

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FAIRFIELD, Conn. (March 6, 2017) — Six years of war in Syria has caused deep psychological scars among many Syrian children, increasing their long-term risk of suicide, heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression, according to a report released today by Save the Children.

Save the Children and its Syrian partners interviewed more than 450 children, adolescents and adults across seven regions in Syria for "Invisible Wounds," the largest and most comprehensive study undertaken inside Syria to examine children’s mental health and wellbeing.

The report documents a growing mental health crisis among children trapped inside Syria, as the war approaches its six-year mark this month. The conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced at least half of the entire Syrian population, while more than 600,000 people remain trapped under siege.

Ongoing shelling, airstrikes and violence mean these children are living in a constant state of fear, which can create a condition known as "toxic stress." If left untreated, toxic stress can have a life-long impact on children’s mental and physical health.

"The children we spoke with in Syria are terrified to play outside, afraid to go to school, and soiling themselves when they hear a loud noise," said Save the Children President and CEO Carolyn Miles. "This is the result of six years of war, and 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 lifesaving aid and psychological support."

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

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 percent 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.

Among the report’s other major findings:

• Two-thirds of the children are said to have lost a loved one, had their house bombed or shelled, or suffered war-related injuries.

• 51 percent said children are turning to drugs to cope with the stress.

• All groups said that loss of education is having a huge psychological impact on children’s lives—half of the children who are still able to attend school said they never or rarely feel safe there.

• 71 percent said that children increasingly suffer from bedwetting and involuntary urination – both common symptoms of toxic stress and PTSD.

• 84 percent of adults and almost all children said that ongoing bombing and shelling is the primary cause of psychological stress in children’s daily lives.

Some Syrian children interviewed said they wanted to die so they could go to heaven and "be warm and eat and play." Children also said they wished to be "hit by snipers because if they got injured they would go to the hospital and leave the siege and they would eat whatever they wanted."

The war, which has now lasted longer than World War II, has put enormous pressure on families, who report a marked increase in domestic violence, with many children saying they feel they have nowhere to turn. These invisible wounds have the potential to permanently damage an entire generation of Syrian children and hinder efforts to rebuild Syria after the conflict, according to the study.

In addition to an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated end to the violence, Save the Children is calling for increased funding for programs that support Syrian children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Save the Children gives children in the United States and around the world a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We invest in childhood — every day, in times of crisis and for our future. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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