The Conflict In Gaza Has Left Thousands Of Kids With Psychological Scars

CREDIT: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Displaced Palestinian children participate in a play session at a U.N. school

Nearly 400,000 children in Gaza are in dire need of treatment for psychological damage resulting from the violence in the region over the past seven years, according to officials from the United Nations. Amid the latest clash between Israel and Gaza, doctors are intensifying their work with children suffering from the mental health consequences of warfare, and psychotherapy is now a regular part of many schools’ curricula.

“Any child above six years old has now been exposed to three wars. We are talking about a traumatized generation. They will perceive the world as dangerous, and they will have a lot of frustration and anger,” Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, explained in a recent interview with the Guardian.

The mental health toll of the violence in the region is well documented. Many children in Gaza have witnessed their relatives or friends being killed, have been wounded themselves, or have lost their homes. In the wake of the 2012 war in Gaza, the U.N. reported a 100 percent increase in psychological disorders among kids. More than 90 percent of children reported having trouble sleeping; 97 percent felt insecure, and 82 percent said they were regularly “in fear of imminent death.”

But now, mental health specialists worry the current conflict will have even more serious consequences, since the young people who have witnessed multiple wars have essentially had their trauma compounded.

“Palestinian children in Gaza are exposed to more violence in their lifetime than any other people, any other children, anywhere in the world,” Dr. Jesse Ghannam, a clinical professor of psychiatry and global health sciences, told Al Jazeera. “Now you’re getting to the point where probably close to 99 percent of children in Gaza are being exposed to a level of violence where they have seen family members be killed, murdered, burned alive.”

The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) currently operates mental health programs in at least 90 clinics across Gaza. Doctors attempt to draw children out by having them draw pictures about what they’re feeling, or practice choosing the right words to describe their emotions. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the agency, told Reuters that psychological treatment is becoming a normal part of schoolchildren’s days.

“We are rolling out a pretty massive program of parental and child therapy,” Gunness said. “We’re having to integrate this kind of therapy into our schools.”

Warfare often takes a significant psychological toll that can linger for decades. Forty years after the Vietnam War, some veterans here at home are still struggling with the debilitating effects of depression and PTSD. The service members returning from the most recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts say that having adequate resources to safeguard their mental health is one of their top concerns. And research has shown that civilians who work in war zones often face many of those same psychological issues, even though they don’t participate in combat. Among civilians in war zones, women, children, and the elderly are most likely to suffer mental health consequences from the violence.