Generation of children in Gaza on the brink of a mental health crisis, new research shows
Save the Children warns fresh violence may destroy last vestiges of resilience
Feelings of depression, hyperactivity, a preference for being alone, and aggression were reported by 95 per cent of children in Gaza, new research released by Save the Children has shown.
The combination of these symptoms in unison is consistent with deep psychological distress, with more than 96 per cent of their caregivers also saying they recognized all four groups of symptoms in their sons, daughters or grandchildren.
The survey, involving 150 caregivers and 150 children living in Gaza, was conducted before the recent wave of protests in which more than 100 people – including 14 children – were killed in six weeks by Israeli forces.
Findings revealed that children of Gaza were already showing worrying signs of distress including nightmares, which were experienced by 63 per cent, as well as difficulties sleeping, reported by 68 per cent.
For children, the threat of conflict, the fear of bombs, and the constant insecurity caused by the unstable political situation were the biggest source of stress, with 60 per cent of caregivers saying it was taking a toll. Additionally, aircraft sounds were cited as the single biggest source of fear in 78 per cent of children.
Boys and girls regularly said that they were “scared” or left feeling “unsafe” by the prospect of war or “bombs being thrown” at them and their families. This led some to fear sleeping at night to “protect them from having bad dreams”.
“I have many horrible nightmares, and a constant feeling of fear that I may be targeted with a bomb or shelled, or injured or killed,” said Samar*, a 15-year-old girl from Gaza who has lived through three wars, remembers nothing but life under blockade and who recently attended the March of Return protests.
“This feeling has gripped me and many other children as well. There are many children who have been psychologically damaged by their fear - they are terrified and this has greatly affected their behaviour.”
Save the Children is deeply concerned that the increasing violence children are experiencing and the growing sense of uncertainty will push their resilience to breaking point.
“When I was at the March and saw people injured I was very upset,” said Samar. “I would cry when I saw innocent children who committed no crime get injured and I cried when I saw dead children. It was heartbreaking and painful. I am still sad - they were just children and I have seen them (injured) - it is a really painful feeling.”
Despite the huge pressures many children were facing, the research found that most were exhibiting signs of resilience. More than 80 per cent said they could speak to family and friends about their problems and 90 per cent said they felt supported by their parents.
“Much of children’s security was related to a sense of stability that their families were able to offer, with more than 80 per cent of the 150 children interviewed saying they did not feel safe being away from their parents,” Dr Marcia Brophy, a Senior Mental Health Advisor for Save the Children in the Middle East, said.
“However, recent weeks have seen thousands suffer through the injury or death of a father, mother or a relative. Such a loss of family security in an already insecure environment risks pushing children to the brink of a mental health crisis and poses a significant threat to children’s fragile coping mechanisms. This places them at high risk of toxic stress, the most dangerous form of stress response caused by a strong or prolonged exposure to adversity.”
Fresh protests are expected to continue until 5thJune, the commemoration of forced displacement that occurred after the 1967 war. More than 1000 children, and at least 11,000 adults, have already been injured by Israeli forces since the protests began.
“It is too soon to understand the full impact the recent violence has had on children, some of whom have lost a parent or loved one, or had to become carers for those injured in the protests,” said Dr Brophy. “What we do know is that the breakdown of family security is one of the key triggers for mental health issues among children in conflict. A whole generation of children in Gaza is balancing on a knife edge where one more shock could have devastating life-long consequences.”
The past ten years have seen families face a host of difficulties and uncertainties in Gaza. The Israeli blockade, as well as three conflicts, has put enormous strain on the economy and key services.
Almost 90 per cent of the 150 caregivers interviewed said that the blockade has had a significant impact on their and their children’s daily lives. Widespread electricity shortages – that have left most families with just a few hours of power every day - were cited as the single biggest negative factor, impacting 60 per cent of children.
Children often expressed feeling “angry” when the electricity was cut or said they felt anxious, alone and like “there was no one with them” during the night when the lights were off. Caregivers meanwhile were most concerned by the deteriorating economic situation, with nearly half saying it was their biggest source of stress of fear.
In the last 15 years, the poverty rate has risen from 30 to more than 50 per cent while unemployment is up from 35 to 43 per cent and now stands at 60 per cent among youth. Less than 20 years ago, 96 per cent of people had clean drinking water, now 93 per cent don’t. Medical and food supplies are also scarce and expensive while permits to leave Gaza for medical treatment are increasingly hard to get.
“Many children in Gaza have known nothing but blockade, war and a growing cycle of deprivation. Their stress and anxiety compounds with every day that they continue to live in uncertainty. And, on top of this, many have been injured or witnessed violence,” said Jennifer Moorehead, Save the Children’s Country Director for the occupied Palestinian territory.
“They are trying to recover in an extremely challenging situation where there are not enough hospital beds or medicines to treat children properly, where there is no electricity for most of the day and where they are increasingly seeing their parents struggling to make ends meet.
“The children of Gaza are resilient but they must urgently receive more support to overcome their traumatic experiences. The international community needs to step up its assistance and introduce more mental health and psycho-social support into schools, extracurricular activities and homes. Only by doing this immediate step, as well as focusing on ending the blockade and finding a durable and just solution, will children have a more hopeful future.”
Call Jess Brennan on 0421 334 918 for interviews.