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Yemen: Generation of children in need of mental health support

Save the Children warns of long term psychological damage unless more support provided
15 October 2018
Today Save the Children is warning there could be long-term psychological damage to a generation of Yemeni children as a result of the country's ongoing conflict unless more mental health and psychosocial support is provided. 

With the right help, most children in Yemen will eventually be able to recover and have a normal life. But without an urgent boost to the provision of mental health and psychosocial support, Yemen’s children could be left with lifelong suffering and diminished long-term prospects.

Yemen is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child today. A child in Yemen has already lived through more than 18,000 airstrikes in his or her lifetime. The ongoing brutality means children are being consistently exposed to extreme violence, further heightening the risk of psychological damage. 

The children of Yemen have watched their friends and family members die before their eyes. They have also seen loved ones buried under the rubble of their collapsing homes. Many have watched their schools and hospitals targeted and destroyed, had their access to life-saving food and medicine denied, and have been torn apart from the life they once knew. The prolonged exposure to war, stress and uncertainty can be extremely upsetting for children and create issues and challenges that last a lifetime.

Yet Yemen has barely any mental health services or sufficient support for children suffering from distress. More than half of all health facilities have closed or are only partially functioning. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017 only 40 psychiatrists were working in the country – about one psychiatrist for about every 700,920 people. To make matters worse, the mental health issues suffered by children and the support they need are not well recognised or understood in Yemeni society. 

A survey published this year spoke to nearly 1,000 children in Sana’a and found 79 per cent showed signs of serious psychological consequences as a result of the conflict. The study revealed that in the first year of the conflict family members began noticing children bedwetting, refusing to be alone or not wanting to leave the house. 

Research in other parts of the Middle East by Save the Children last year found exposure to prolonged conflicts has a devastating effect on children’s mental health and wellbeing. We found evidence of what experts call ‘toxic stress’ – the most dangerous form of stress a child can experience. Toxic stress is caused by strong, frequent or prolonged adversity without adequate caregiver support. If left untreated toxic stress can have a lifelong impact on children’s mental and physical health. 

Kelly McBride, Save the Children’s Regional Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Technical Advisor, said:

“Children in Yemen, who make up nearly half of the population, are exposed to a myriad of stress factors. Given the developmental stage that children are in, they are extremely vulnerable in times of crisis. Without security in their lives, they are unable to learn the very basic skills that are needed to thrive. This can severely impact their immediate and long-term mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

“Children in conflict zones often experience bedwetting, nightmares, hypervigilance, grief, depression, anxiety, aggression, feeling withdrawn, and numerous other challenges. This can impair their ability to engage in daily life, including an inability to focus or perform well in school, learn new information, form relationships and attachments, or find a sense of safety.

“There is little community awareness in Yemen of how to support children and families whose mental health and wellbeing are suffering. Also, many of those who suffer from severe distress do not have access to the services they need due to general lack of trained staff and stigma. This is a gap the international community is trying to fill during this critical time.” 

Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s Yemen Country Director, said:

“Brutal violence, including explosive weapons and bullets, continues to take an unacceptable toll on children. We call on all parties to the conflict to take immediate measures to prevent grave violations against children and find a peaceful political solution to end this conflict. The consequences of this conflict will have a lasting impact on the country for years to come. It is paramount that the international community comes together to ensure these children get the support they need to rebuild their lives.”  

Case study:

12-year-old Khaled* was on his way to a picnic when a deadly airstrike hit his school bus, killing 40 children in northern Saada province, Yemen, on August 9, 2018. Not only was he badly injured in the attack, putting him in a wheelchair, the horrifying experience has also left him feeling anguished and numb.

Khaled told Save the Children: “We were happy, we were going to [play]. When we reached the market there were people there, and everything [was as usual]. Then there was firing. I couldn’t find my friends. I feel my friend’s pain and my pain. I don’t feel anything else.” 

Following the airstrike, Khaled told Save the Children staff that he had trouble sleeping at night and becomes scared when he hears the sound of aeroplanes soaring overhead. 

Khaled: “I wish that the war stops so I can continue to learn and build my life and achieve my dreams. I want the war to stop so they stop killing children, women and men. What is their sin?”

Khaled’s mother told Save the Children: “Suddenly I saw people hurry to the bus. What is wrong? What happened? They said the bus was hit, that no kids survived. Everyone was looking for their kids… Then they admitted [my son] to the intensive care unit... We spent 22 days [in hospital]. There was pus coming out of his eyes, his ears bleeding, his nose was stitched, they have operated everywhere on him, behind his ears, fragments in his head. They said his leg is damaged; they [took] 16 x-rays [of him].”

Save the Children specialists on the ground are supporting Khaled and other children affected by the bus attack through intensive psychosocial support and covering their families’ transportation costs to and from hospital. Save the Children has reached more than 12,500 children like Khaled through its mental health and psychosocial support programmes in Yemen this year, but we need to reach many more. 

For interviews, call Jess Brennan on 0421 334 918

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