A month of relentless bombardment of densely populated civilian areas has exacerbated the already-critical mental health crisis for Gaza’s children with far-reaching consequences, as coping strategies and safe spaces are ripped away and mental health services and assistance are cut off, says Save the Children.
Over the past month, 4,008 children have been killed in Gaza, with a further 1,270 children missing, presumed buried under the rubble. A further 43 children have been killed in the occupied West Bank. The aid agency has warned that children’s mental health in Gaza has been pushed beyond breaking point.
With Israeli air strikes over the last month hitting thousands of civilian spaces in Gaza including schools and hospitals sheltering families, the violence, fear, grief and uncertainty is causing serious mental harm for children with no safe place to go.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza reports that 444 families have lost two to five members to the violence in the last four weeks, including 192 families who have lost ten or more members, leaving many children without family support – a critical coping mechanism for children experiencing trauma. Medical professionals in Gaza, Doctors without Borders (MSF), have shared that the number of children without surviving family members arriving for medical care is so high that a new acronym has been coined to identify them – “WCNSF” (Wounded Child No Surviving Family).
Save the Children’s mental health experts warn that the current conduct of hostilities in Gaza is exposing children to extremely traumatic episodes while stripping away options to help them cope. There is no safe place, no sense of security and no routine, with thousands displaced from their homes. Caregivers experiencing their own stress are struggling to help children cope with the overwhelming emotional reactions typical of young people traumatised by violence. Under current conditions in Gaza, children are experiencing a whole host of signs and symptoms of trauma including anxiety, fear, worry about their safety and that of their loved ones, nightmares and disturbing memories, insomnia, bottling up emotions and withdrawing from loved ones. The trauma giving rise to these symptoms is ongoing, relentless and compounding day by day.
A Save the Children staff member in Gaza and father of three children aged under ten said: “There is a lot of loss and a lot of pain. We are fearful: of what the coming hours will bring, of what tomorrow will bring.”
Death is everywhere. My children look into my eyes every day, they are searching for answers. I have no answers for them. It is very hard, especially for children.
Since the land, air and sea blockade was imposed in 2007, the lives of children in Gaza have been mired by severe deprivation, cycles of violence and restrictions on their freedom. A report published by Save the Children in June 2022 showed that children’s mental health was already at breaking point. Some 80 per cent of children reported feeling in a perpetual state of fear, worry, sadness and grief. Three-quarters of children were bedwetting in fear, and a growing number were exhibiting reactive mutism.
Save the Children’s Country Director for the occupied Palestinian territory, Jason Lee, said: “In times of war, people usually seek refuge in safe places. There are no safe places in Gaza right now, and there is no way of reaching safety outside. With a sense of safety, the constant reassuring presence of family, some kind of a routine and appropriate treatment, children can recover. But so many children have already lost family members, some have lost all, and the violence and displacement is relentless.”
“We are running out of words to raise the alarm in strong enough terms or to articulate the scale of children’s suffering. There must be a ceasefire.”
Every day of violence means more mental and physical scars that will last a lifetime. Without an immediate ceasefire, there’s a very real risk that children’s mental health will be pushed to the point of no return.