Syria's children suffering 'toxic stress' of war

Save the Children, with Shafak and other Syrian partners, interviewed more than 458 children, adolescents and adults across seven governorates in Syria for "Invisible Wounds", a new report on the mental health of Syrian children.

"We've all witnessed from a distance how horrifying this war has been", Cicely McWilliam told CBC News, from Save the Children's Toronto office.

Researchers interviewed more than 450 children, adolescents and adults across Syria.

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than 11 million Syrians homeless, and created the world's worst refugee crisis.

The report, which the British charity Save the Children published Tuesday, says that nearly all children it interviewed say they suffer from war-related stress, brought on by bombings, the loss of family and friends, and near-constant insecurity.

Children living in war-torn Syria, some as young as 12, are self-harming, taking drugs, and attempting suicide to escape the horrors they have endured after six years of conflict, an global aid group said on Monday.

The researchers also found that two-thirds of the children had lost a loved one, had their houses bombed or shelled, or suffered war-related injuries.

A Syrian child looks out from an abandoned gas station where he and his family live in Tel Abiad district, Raqqa Governorate, Syria.

Syrian children are showing symptoms of "toxic stress" and are attempting self-harm and suicide in response to prolonged exposure to war, according to a report. About 48 percent of adults reported seeing children who have lost the ability to speak or who have developed speech impediments since the war began, according to the report.

Adults said the main cause of psychological stress is the constant shelling and bombardment that characterize the war that is nearing its sixth anniversary.

A critical shortage of mental health and psychosocial support in Syria and "little community or institutional support" are exacerbating the children's problems, the report says.

71 per cent said that children increasingly suffer from frequent bedwetting and involuntary urination.

The symptoms of toxic stress which overlap with those of post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt the development of the brain and other organs, and trigger mental health disorders and addiction in adulthood, said Alexandra Chen, a child protection and mental health specialist based at Harvard University.

"My son wakes up afraid in the middle of the night", a father named Firas is quoted as saying about his 3-year-old son, Saaed. "We never had something like this before, even for older people", Syrian mental health worker Sharif was quoted as saying in the report. Because of fear. A child was slaughtered in front of him, so he started to dream that someone is coming to slaughter him.

Save The Children said the survey was the first focusing on the mental health of children still living in Syria. They tried to explain to the child that now your dad is a martyr and he is going to paradise, so the child thought that if he died he would see his dad.

The lack of schools has worsened the crisis.

Ibrahim draws during an activity at Save the Children's child friendly space in Al Hol Camp.

It said that at least three million children are estimated to be living in areas with exposure to high explosive weapons and that at least three million youngsters aged under six know nothing but war. But she adds, "There are millions of Syrians who are refugees or internally displaced who will never come to Canada, and we need to be supporting them as well".

The civil war in the country has been waging since 2011, and is believed to have led to more than 300,000 deaths.

Doctors Without Borders recognizes "the uniquely devastating effect" of the civil war on children, said Pablo Marco, operations manager for the group in the Middle East.

  • Joanne Flowers