Real World Problems: Mental Health of Syrian Children

A couple of weeks ago, I announced on my Instagram page (@sujanee) that I will be starting an education component on my blog called “Real World Problems.” As a lover of global public health, I find it necessary to write about important issues that have public health implications.

To kick off “Real World Problems,” join me in Syria.

The current situation

Saturday, April 7: Douma, Syria fell victim of yet another gas attack, leaving dozens choking and at least 70 people dead.

Saturday, April 14: The White House, in coalition with France and the UK, debated options for military action. The result is 105 missiles launched at three alleged chemical weapon facilities of Bashar al Assad. Trump tweeted “Mission Accomplished!”

I am not here today to discuss with you on whether the US response was appropriate or not. Rather, I want to shed light on the mental health of those who have been victim to the horrors of the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian war has produced more than 5 million refugees fleeing the country and 6.1 million internally displaced people (IDPs). The state of Colorado has 5.6 million people. That means approximately the entire state of Colorado is trying to flee to neighboring countries, and ANOTHER entire state of Colorado is displaced within Syria. About half of the total refugee and IDP population are children. 

The effects of war

The most immediate effects of war are what you would assume to see: death, injuries, food insecurity, malnutrition, violence, etc. Long term effects include disability, mental scars, and impairment in socioeconomic skills. Mental distress among children manifests as bedwetting, nightmares, or changes in behavior.

Children experience distress on multiple levels. Emotional manifestations include feeling sad, grief, and fear. Cognitive manifestations may manifest as helplessness, boredom, hopelessness, and loss of control. Physical symptoms include fatigue, sleeping issues, unexplainable body pain, and loss of appetite.

A major stressor for children is a change in their role. The disruption in everyday life caused by the war interrupts what should be normal for a child. Disruption in a child’s life from the norm to that of turmoil results in the child experiencing more than just fear and anxiety. They can develop depression, speech problems, PTSD, hyperactivity, aggression, etc.

Save the Children

In Syria, the sounds of bombs and aeroplanes trigger an intense level of fear. Children face issues sleeping as they fear being hit by bombs and dying. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. It can also lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and early mortality. Access to medical care is increasingly tough as hospitals and health professionals are being targeted. The ability to receive psychosocial care is even more bleak: there is only one mental health hospital in Syria for acute psychiatric conditions.

Syrian child drawing of a bomb attack. Credit: Zaher Sahloud

If left untreated, these children become more at risk for not only physical and mental illnesses, but they face socioeconomic disadvantages. In a community where mental illness is highly stigmatized, failure to detect and treat affected children can lead to even more dire consequences. According to Dr. Hamza, more than 45% of refugee children suffer from PTSD.

So what now?

Don’t forget about Syria. The international community was shocked when the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3 year-old Syrian boy who was found washed ashore on a Turkish beach, surfaced online. People were angry. People were sad. People were impatient. Then people forgot.

Then, we saw Omran. The 5 year-old Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after an airstrike in Aleppo. People were shocked. People were angry. People were sad. People were impatient. Then people forgot.

The father of Alan Kurdi says that the photo of his son changed nothing.

Credit: @khalidalbaih
  1. Educate yourself and understand your own capacity to help.
  2. Keep sharing the stories of Syrian refugees and IDPs.
  3. Execute your capacity to help. Whether this means hosting an information session on the Syrian conflict with your classmates or donating some money to organizations on the ground.
  4. Here is the latest call to action from Anna Nolan, the Director of The Syria Campaign:

“When we see such horror we all feel hopeless. The most tempting thing to do is to turn away but Syria’s democrats and peacemakers need us now more than ever. So please stand with them in their demand for real, international action to stop the bombs.” – Anna Nolan

In other words, use your voice to demand international action!!

Without the joint efforts of international and local organizations, Syrian children are vulnerable to becoming recruits to extremist military groups (i.e. IS), which provide children with a sense of belonging and purpose. Many are also subject to child labor under extreme conditions. There is an urgent need for mental health and educational programs to be implemented and supported. In order to do this, those doing the work in Syria and its neighboring countries need your help.

Here are some resources that I frequent to keep myself updated:

The Syria Campaign

Art of Hope

Syrian American Medical Society

White Helmets

Current Funding Status

Click ‘subscribe’ below and follow me on IG: @sujanee 

2 thoughts on “Real World Problems: Mental Health of Syrian Children

    1. Truly 😞 but what is also amazing is how resilient children can be, even in the most terrifying conditions. This is why we must work to protect them.

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