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Dramatic deterioration in the mental health of children in Gaza, Save the Children warns

March 13, 2024 at 5:04 pm

A Palestinian women holding hands with children at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital following an Israeli attack in Deir Al Balah, Gaza on March 9, 2024. [Ashraf Amra – Anadolu Agency]

There has been a dramatic deterioration in the mental health of children in Gaza following five months of “violence, displacement, starvation and disease on top of nearly 17 years of a blockade”, Save the Children warned yesterday.

Parents and caregivers told the child rights organisation that children’s capacity to even imagine a future without war has virtually disappeared.

“The emotional distress of dodging bombs and bullets, losing loved ones, being forced to flee through streets littered with debris and corpses, and waking up every morning not knowing if they will be able to eat has also left parents and caregivers increasingly unable to cope,” Save the Children said.

Dalia, a mother in Gaza, told researchers for the charity: “The children are scared, angry and can’t stop crying. Even many adults do the same. This is too much for adults to cope with, let alone children.”

Parents noted that children have given up on their hopes or ambitions for the future, while others struggle with everyday activities.

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“Some of my children can’t concentrate on basic tasks anymore. They forget things that I’ve told them immediately and can’t remember things that have just happened. I wouldn’t even say that their mental health has deteriorated – it’s been obliterated. Complete psychological destruction,” Amal, a mother of four children in Gaza, said:

The findings come as the Ministry of Health in Gaza reports that more than 30,717 people, including 12,550 children, have been killed since Israel’s latest military escalation in Gaza that started on 7 October.

Lack of food and clean water is also creating a catastrophic hunger crisis, with nearly every child in Gaza at risk of famine. At least 15 children have died of malnutrition and dehydration in northern Gaza, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health. With barely any health facilities functioning and families cut off from medical services, it is likely that the real figure is far higher – and all this is causing anxiety and stress in children and families to skyrocket, Save the Children said.

Even before 7 October, children in Gaza were living with exceptionally poor mental health due to cyclical escalations of violence, the impacts of the blockade including restrictions on freedom of movement and access to essential services, economic collapse, and separation from family and friends.

Those surveyed for the new report said they had witnessed a dramatic deterioration in the mental health of children that is much worse than during previous escalations in violence, manifesting in fear, anxiety, disordered eating, bedwetting, hyper-vigilance and sleep problems as well as behavioural changes such as an alternation in attachment style with parents, regression and aggression.

“It is unacceptable that any child should contend with the horrors that those in Gaza have lived through. While dodging bombs and bullets, fleeing through streets littered with debris and corpses, being forced to sleep in the open air and going without the basic food and clean water they need to survive, children in Gaza are going through a period of mass-scale shock and grief,” Jason Lee, Save the Children’s country director for the occupied Palestinian territory, said.

In 2022, Save the Children found that four out of five children in the Gaza Strip suffer from depression, sadness and fear as a result of living under Israel’s stifling  blockade. In its 2022 report, the charity found the number of those reporting symptoms of “depression, grief and fear”, has risen from 55 per cent to 80 per cent.

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