Traumatic stress caused by war is a ticking time bomb for countries trying to rebuild society

  • Health

Mental health problems in people affected by the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Ukraine are leaving an entire generation traumatised by armed violence. Often neglected, mental health disorders linked to this type of trauma can have severe repercussions on the whole of society and impede its reconstruction.


Speech therapy session in one of the three children centre supported by Handicap International in Lebanon.
Speech therapy session in one of the three children centre supported by Handicap International in Lebanon.

There are extremely urgent needs for mental health and psychosocial support in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, according to the observations of Handicap International in its work with these countries’ displaced persons and refugees. In a report published by Handicap International in June 2016, Syria, A Mutilated Future, 80% of the victims of bombing interviewed in Lebanon and Jordan’s refugee camps are suffering from severe psychological distress.

“Mental health problems caused by the current conflicts are affecting hundreds of thousands of people. They will have long-term effects, including an enduring impact on interpersonal relations and hindering the efforts to rebuild societies once the conflicts are over,” states Sarah Rizk, health and prevention advisor at Handicap International.

“Only an in-depth knowledge of these needs together with appropriate support can mitigate the psychological impacts of violence. This is what Handicap International seeks to achieve.”

The Syrian Refugees’ Needs study, undertaken in 2015 by the University of Kocaeli on behalf of the World Health Organisation working with Syrian refugees in Turkey, shows for example that the vast majority have directly experienced war-related violence: around 70% have lost a loved one; more than 50% have been caught up in fighting, 50% have also lost their homes - a whole host of traumatic experiences which require specifically-tailored support.

Serious consequences of exposure to violence

Almost all the children of displaced families and refugees exposed to violence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and receiving support from Handicap International suffer from insomnia or nightmares, show signs of hyperactivity or fatigue, have headaches, attention-deficit problems and more.

Exposure to armed conflict leads to periods of agitation or stupor, which manifest as an inability to make decisions and complete everyday tasks, along with anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress disorders. Among the most serious consequences observed by Handicap International’s teams are cases of loss of identity, amnesia or muteness.

The lack of services and investment to meet mental health needs is a ticking time bomb for the reconstruction of these countries. If there is no adequate humanitarian response to meet the needs of an entire generation of people affected by conflict and suffering from trauma, then this will jeopardise future attempts to rebuild the social fabric.

In societies afflicted by armed conflict, Handicap International frequently observes a form of distress reflected in an increase in aggressive, high risk behaviour (such as consumption of alcohol or drugs), and physical and sexual violence.

The example of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 which resulted in the deaths of close to one million people shows that the psychological consequences of violence are long-lasting and can have a profound and enduring impact on the prospects for living together in harmony. 22 years after the genocide, large numbers of people are still suffering from trauma, leading to serious repercussions for social cohesion and mutual trust. Handicap International is currently running a psychological support programme involving 6,000 people in Rwanda.

Our activities on mental health

Handicap International is implementing psychosocial and mental health programmes in 24 countries, 8 of which are experiencing emergency situations. The organisation raises awareness of mental health problems among local communities and their health/social services, provides psychosocial and psychological support to affected people, and refers them to existing services.

In 2015, Handicap International provided psychosocial support to 60,000 people, of whom more than 20,000 were supported during emergency response efforts. In response to the crises in Syria and Iraq, the organisation has offered psychosocial support to some 16,000 people since May 2012. In Yemen, it has provided psychosocial assistance to more than 3,200 people since September 2015. 

Published 10/10/16

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