Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

War can leave invisible mental scars

The region is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis

A Syrian child weeps amid the rubble of a makeshift camp in Rihaniyye in Lebanon's Akkar governorate after the army destroyed a number of dwelling. Ibrahim Chalhoub / AFP
A Syrian child weeps amid the rubble of a makeshift camp in Rihaniyye in Lebanon's Akkar governorate after the army destroyed a number of dwelling. Ibrahim Chalhoub / AFP

Whenever the world witnesses conflict or disruption, the immediate physical consequences are apparent for all to see – broken bodies, destroyed homes, shattered communities. Less visible and so largely ignored is the long-lasting psychological damage that can haunt societies, long after the news crews have moved on. As The National’s series of disturbing reports from Lebanon makes starkly clear, the impact on the mental health of those caught up in cataclysmic crises is as profound as it is underappreciated, and yet carries within it the seeds of social disruption for generations to come. Since 2011, millions of people have fled the civil war in Syria, seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries. About 1.5 million refugees flocked to Lebanon, subsisting in overcrowded, unsanitary camps in the north and south of the country and in Bekaa and Beirut. But they are simply the latest wave of people driven from their own homelands out of desperation. More than 700,000 Palestinians fled the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 and hundreds of thousands of their descendants still exist on the fringes of society in Lebanon, decades on.

Of the Syrians in Lebanon, many of whom have witnessed the horrors of war firsthand, more than 40 per cent are aged under 11. Most of those will have been born in refugee camps and have know no existence other than the grim parody of life that is their lot. Daily, refugees must wrestle with a host of problems, from finding sufficient food, safe drinking water and heating, to securing medical assistance and ensuring the safety of their families in overcrowded communities in which the threat of crime and random violence is ever-present. Any one of these issues would put a significant strain on the mental health of any individual living in otherwise normal circumstances. Taken together, and endured relentlessly in appalling conditions, they amount to an unimaginably intolerable burden.

Some good work is being done. Counselling services are being run by NGOs in some camps but, underfunded and understaffed, with staff themselves in need of support to cope with the trauma, they can hope to reach only a fraction of those desperately in need of help. Some of the statistics that have emerged illustrate the overwhelming nature of the problem. One charity estimates there are thousands of mental health patients among the refugee community; another found that 40 per cent of Syrian teenagers who fled the war had contemplated suicide; in Lebanon and Turkey, one in six refugees suffers from psychotic disorders. This amounts to a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions, and solving it is everybody’s business – and not simply because standing by and doing nothing is inhumane. Governments must reach out and offer meaningful help to young minds being harmed by the loss of hope, opportunity and dignity. For if nothing is done, this is a crisis that will be handed down from generation to generation, creating a cycle of despair and violence that will blight the region for decades to come.

Updated: August 14, 2019 07:45 PM

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