Displaced Iraqi children, who fled the ongoing Mosul offesnive, pose for the camera at the Hasan Sham camp , 30 kilometres east of the city. Photo: AFP/Ahmad Gharabli
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Years of conflict has scarred many of Mosul's children for life and they are in desperate need of mental health services warns Save the Children organization.
A Save the Children report based on studying 65 children and published on Wednesday shows that the brutal fighting and years under ISIS rule in Mosul has left children with “dangerous levels” of psychological damage.
Experts have found that children are so deeply scarred by their memories of extreme violence that they are numb and unable to show emotions, suffer from vivid nightmares and live in constant fear of their lives.
The research is based on focus group discussions with 65 children now living in a displacement camp south of Mosul. It is the largest study to date regarding the impact of the Mosul conflict on children’s mental health.
All children displayed signs of “toxic stress” which is the most dangerous stress response causing children’s minds to constantly be in “fight or flight” mode.
If left untreated, toxic stress can lead to a life-long impact on both physical and mental health with increased vulnerability to heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
The biggest cause of distress in children was the loss of a loved one. Ninety percent of the children have lost at least one family member due to death, abduction or separation from family during their escape.
Nearly all of the children showed “robotic” behavior and were slow to understand instructions. They also refused to play or even show emotions.
Several children said they had witnessed family members being killed by ISIS in front of them, saw dead bodies and blood in the streets and lived through bombs destroying their homes. Others also shared stories of their family members being shot by ISIS snipers, killed in landmines or hit by explosives as they attempted to flee to safety.
Many children spoke about the constant threat of punishment from ISIS for going against their rules, as well as family members being killed or imprisoned for doing so.
Save the Children’s Senior Mental Health Advisor for the Middle East, Dr. Marcia Brophy said, “What was striking was how introverted and withdrawn children have become. They rarely even smiled. It was as though they had lost the ability to be children.”
“Their time under ISIS, and making a life-or-death escape, has taken a truly terrible toll,” she added.
The support of parents and family is important in helping children cope with the mental stress they have gone through, however many parents themselves are so psychologically affected that they are unable to provide comfort to their children.
“These children are not going to heal in weeks, or even months. They’ll need support for years to come,” said Brophy.
Domestic violence has also increased in the came as a result of ongoing anger and sadness by Mosul’s displaced. More than 85% of the children reported being beaten or had witnessed others beaten.
However, the charity group is extremely underfunded only having 2% of the funds needed for their mental health program. Due to underfunding, they are unable to provide the much needed psychological support for children or their parents.
Save the Children is calling on the Iraqi Government to increase investment in training child psychologists and counselors as well as for international donors to urgently and significantly increase their support for mental health assistance.
Save the Children’s Iraq Country Director, Ana Locsin, said, “Children escaping Mosul have gone through horror piled upon horror. They have been starved and abused inside the city. Explosive weapons have been dropped in narrow streets by all sides with little regard to their impact. But the impact on children is clear: even if they make it out alive they are left scarred and broken. And right now, that’s what Mosul’s future looks like.”
“Life-saving aid like shelter, food and water are crucial in this crisis – but to help children recover and rebuild after their ordeals psychological support must be considered a priority. The world must do more to repair the damage,” she added.