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Lack of safety, fear, distress: mental health of 7m children at risk after quakes

February 17, 2023 at 3:49 pm

Children eat food as earthquake survivors live in tent after amusement park turns into a shelter for earthquake victims in Idlib, Syria on February 13, 2023 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

The mental health and wellbeing of seven million children is at risk for years to come after last week’s devastating earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria, Save the Children has warned, adding that some are showing signs of acute distress including nightmares, aggression, or being withdrawn.

Around 23 million people have been impacted by the earthquakes, many of whom have witnessed their friends and family members die before their eyes. Others have been buried under the rubble of their collapsed homes. Many now still don’t have anywhere safe to go.

Children who have experienced extremely distressing events or repeated stress are more likely to have long-lasting impacts for months or even years to come unless more mental health and psychosocial support is urgently provided alongside humanitarian aid.

READ: I wish more Muslims had died in Turkiye quake, letters to UK mosques say

Aiida, a psychologist working for Save the Children, said: “In these cases, children are at risk of developing mental health difficulties, particularly as there were several events one after another, earthquakes with ongoing aftershocks, with no period for recovery.”

“In the long-term, this can impact many aspects of a child’s life, including difficulties with learning, concentration and school performance. A child who has experienced life-threatening events may remain primarily focused on feeling safe and function in survival mode – what we can also call a flight, fight or freeze response.”

After 12 years of conflict and economic crisis, the mental health needs in Syria were already significant before the earthquakes. According to UN data from December 2022, nearly half of all children surveyed were showing signs of psychological distress, and 26 per cent of households reported the reason their children did not want to go to school was because they felt depressed, unhappy or lacked motivation.

The fact that the earthquakes and shockwaves took place when people were in their homes at night increased their sense of fear.

For young children, increased clinginess and anxiety upon separation is being observed, with children needing to sleep next to their caregivers at night and stay next to them during the day, the charity warned. “Overexposure to distressing news and images circulating through social media is also playing a role in children’s stress levels especially among teenagers.”

READ: Qatar envoy to Turkiye heads aid convoy to northern Syria