President Bashar al-Assad. Isil. Torture. Airstrikes. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Refugees. War Crimes.
These are all words that have become associated with a civil war that has bought a country to its knees. Since the conflict’s inception in 2011, where a mass protest took a dark turn into violence and death, over 250,000 Syrians have died and a further 6.5 million have been displaced from their homelands. Now over five years since that fateful day, the war still rages on, affecting the hearts and minds of a generation whose lives have been irreparably changed by the indiscriminate actions of others.
You see, beneath all of the news coverage detailing the bombardments, firefights and chemical warfare lies something else with long term consequences. I refer to the children of Syria. It is they who are at risk from child exploitation, malnutrition and a myriad of other dangers threatening their livelihoods. There are even reports by the US State Department of warring parties forcibly recruiting children to serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles. Yet even without taking any of this into account there is a very tangible argument that these children are just as at risk from themselves as they are from those with malevolent intent.
It is a fact that child suicide attempts are increasing, particularly in the Syrian town of Madaya, where at least ‘six teenagers and seven young adults have attempted suicide in the last two months alone’.
It is a fact that donors would prefer to pay for provisions such as shelter and water than they would invest in desperately needed mental health services.
It is a fact that between 2 and 3 million Syrian children are not attending school.
While basic provisions are clearly necessary in order to ensure survival, completely ignoring the human factor is not the answer either. Many people in the world are susceptible to mental illness and its negative effects on the mind. This risk is multiplied tenfold when factors such as war, and the inevitable emotional trauma that comes with it enter the equation.
As such this means that not only has the infrastructure of Syria’s society been irreparably tainted, but the next generation, who will have to bear the costs of the war’s aftermath, are going to struggle on a psychological level. According to research, post-traumatic stress disorder is the most common problem faced by children with close to 50 percent afflicted. Considering that Syria has a relatively youthful population with the median age estimated to be around 23.7, this is highly significant. Just how are the youth of a country torn apart by war and bloodshed expected to find normality after witnessing such carnage?
‘Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child’
Combine this with the fact that a substantial amount of children are not even able to proceed with their education because of the war and the picture of their future is not exactly one filled with hope…
This is a word that has been plastered so much over the news in recent months that it is likely you would have heard of this city under siege even if you know little else about the place. Aleppo is significant in it has strategic value for the various factions fighting over it, including the Syrian government and the rebel forces. As things currently stand with the former controlling the Western side of the city and the latter controlling the East, it would seem to be the civilians who are suffering the most.
It is estimated that at least 100,000 children are currently caught up in the conflict in the country’s biggest city. Of this number,more than 370 people, including nearly 70 children, have been killed in Syrian government and Russian bombardment of the eastern side of Aleppo since September 22. This is within the space of less than a month! Considering that the city has been under siege since midway through 2012, the total number of those who have perished is likely to be much, much higher.
“[Children need] safety, comfort, protection, room to play. I don’t mean physical room, but psychological space,” he said. “But if you don’t know when a barrel bomb is going to fall next, there’s only so much you can do.”
This serves to illustrate just how ingrained violence and death has become in this part of the country, and how for the children who still live in the region, the threat of injury or death hangs over them and their loved ones like a dark cloud on a daily basis.
Humanitarian Aid agencies have been unable to reach the afflicted since the siege of Aleppo resumed on the 4th of September.
A Silver Lining?
However, this is not to say that citizens still caught up in the war have cowered away from resuming their day to day lives. Much to the contrary in fact. Despite the barrel bombs destroying buildings and even hospitals in Aleppo, a recent article detailed that children caught up in the bombardments have started to return to school. Elsewhere at a facility in Amman, children are able to play, engage with other children, have healthy social lives and learn about their rights.
All of this does much to alleviate the all too common symptoms of anxiety and depression that are often observed in young Syrians who have witnessed acts of violence.
What can we do?
At this point, while it is clear that basic necessities are required to ensure survival, the scales need to be readjusted so that mental health is given an equal amount of priority.
- A good start might be to donate what you can to Save the children. Their work involves helping refugee and displaced children who need things such as shelter, food and tools which can be used for educational purposes. Other worthwhile causes that can help those stranded in Aleppo are detailed in this article.
- As for making a donation towards that specifically helps those afflicted by mental health issues, the Syria relief‘s National Centre for Mental Health offers psychosocial treatment to children and their parents. Alternatively you could help support the work of the MSF, whose mental health programmes have previously helped victims of the Iraq War.
- It is my hope that the information in this article also highlight show important it is for the stigma against mental health to be eradicated entirely. The IMC has suggested taking steps such as ‘making mental health care a part of general health care (a step to ease the stigma of seeking mental health help); ramping up training in mental health care for general health care providers’ and ‘addressing developmental needs of children as a priority’. Outdated attitudes towards mental health have no place in day to day life of any civilised nation, never mind one that is on the verge of imploding itself.
More recently, diplomatic talks were held between John Kerry, the US secretary of state and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister in Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday. This was followed by a conference in London on Sunday where the possibility of a ‘no bombing zone’ was discussed by Mr Kerry, Mr Johnson and their counterparts from France and Germany.
Whether these meetings will culminate in a solution for the countless lives being torn to pieces by war and destruction is up for debate. Given the ineffectiveness of previous talks and the collapse of a ceasefire between the US and Russia on September 17th, I think it is fair to say that it is with a skeptical eye that the world looks on and waits. What is undeniable on the other hand, is that the future generation of a country are in a perilous situation, and they cannot be expected to conquer their inner demons all by themselves.
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here