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The hidden toll of war

17 September 2019, Action for Change

24 million children are suffering from mental health impacts of conflict

The images of a war zone are easy to conjure up: bombs exploding, men with weapons at checkpoints, long lines for food and children out of school.

But what happens when the shooting stops, and children are left alone with their thoughts?

A new report from Save the Children, ‘Road to recovery: responding to children’s mental health in conflict’ reveals that of the 142 million children living in conflict zones, more than seven million are at serious risk of developing severe mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression or anxiety, and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is the hidden toll that conflict takes on children. It is part of why every war is a war on children.

Mariam’s* life changed forever one night 

Mariam is from Gaza, in the occupied Palestinian territories. Her life changed the night a missile strike left shrapnel embedded in her left ear. She became severely traumatised and withdrawn, struggling even to communicate with her own brothers. Her grades dropped at school and, she says, her friends started “looking at me differently”. She couldn’t do the things she’d been able to do before – even going outside to play left her feeling dizzy. Fiercely independent, she hated having things done for her.

Mariam, 14, at her home in the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinian territory (oPt)
Jonathan Hyams / Save the Children

Mariam’s story is just one example of how a traumatic experience can reverberate for years, leaving a once vibrant child grasping for help, unable to escape her thoughts. Fortunately, Mariam’s story of trauma and withdrawal changed when she was able to access Save the Children’s programs - programs that we couldn’t provide without the generous support of people like you. 

Mariam was able to build friendships and began to open up about her experience to her case worker, Nebal. Mariam’s school work picked up again and now she’s looking forward to the future with optimism. She wants to become a doctor to help children who’ve suffered like she has.

A hidden crisis

Sadly, Mariam’s story of recovery is the exception. Most children who live through conflict never get the help they need.

Recent research by the World Health Organisation indicates that as many as 17% of people living in conflict zones experience serious consequences on their mental health. Based on this, Save the Children estimates 24 million children are suffering from high levels of mental distress caused by conflict. 

To make matters worse, support for children’s mental health needs in conflict situations is woefully inadequate. Our analysis in 2019 found that from 2015–17 only 0.14% of all government aid was for mental health support programming – a huge shortfall.

The vulnerability of children

Left untreated, the impact of war on children’s health – both physical and mental – is devastating. Each grave violation, airstrike and siege can prolong children’s exposure to severe or toxic stress – in turn affecting brain development, behaviour and their overall sense of wellbeing. However, children can demonstrate resilience in even the most extreme circumstances, especially if they are supported to recover. Just like Mariam.


Australia can help Stop the War on Children

Though mental health support to children recovering from conflict is currently low, we can scale it up – and one of the best and immediate ways is through education.

Education facilities – such as schools and child friendly spaces – can provide children with access to supportive relationships with peers, teachers and community members, as well as a sense of stability.

In the run up to world leaders meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York this month, we’re calling on Australia to donate to Education Cannot Wait (ECW), a fund which provides education during a humanitarian crisis. ECW is a leader in integrating mental health support into their work, so children can heal while they learn. 

The mental health impacts of war might not be as visible as a broken limb or missing parent, but the impacts can be just as devastating and long-lasting.

In the future, we ask Australia to commit to ensuring mental health support for children and their families is an essential component of Australia’s aid in emergencies.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

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