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Gaza crisis risks long-term health problems for children

Gaza crisis risks long-term problems for children says mental health specialist

August 1, 2014

As missiles rain down on Gaza, the war is exacting a huge psychological toll on children, which will plague the region for decades to come according to a World Vision mental health and psychosocial support specialist.

Alison Schafer says most human beings have a remarkable capacity to recover naturally from a crisis, once their sense of security is restored and their basic needs are met. But in Gaza children are in a perpetual crisis because of either war, the threat of war or a blockade that prevents the delivery of essential supplies.

“The challenge that is unique to Gaza is that children never achieve any ongoing sense of safety at all, and their parents cannot provide it because they have no control and they have nowhere else to go,” she says.

At least 200,000 children in Gaza are believed to be in need of psychosocial support, which World Vision is providing in homes, shelters and hospitals as the fighting continues. Many of the children are sharing their firsthand accounts of the bloodshed. Khaled, 11, said: "I have really bad nightmares, as I saw my sister and my cousin shredded and cut into pieces.” (See more quotes below)

Ms Schafer says such prolonged periods of stress cause a massive increase in cortisol levels in the brain, which adversely affects the mental development of children. Research is suggesting that this could be making children more at risk for aggressive behaviours and psychological problems in later life.

She adds that people suffering extreme adverse childhood experiences may have their lives shortened, with a significant risk of death before 50 years of age compared with children who have not experienced such events.

Ms Schafer says it’s critical for children’s mental health for the current hostilities to cease and for the blockade of Gaza to end.

Once this is achieved, it will be important for children to get back to a regular routine as quickly as possible, such as by going to school and participating in after-school activities. Children will also require more support from their parents.

“You are going to have children clinging to mother’s legs; you’re going to have children seeking attention. If they are not provided that attention in a positive way such as during family meals or family games then they are going to start exhibiting negative behaviours,” she says.

Ms Schafer says while aid organizations can provide a range of psychosocial support, the most important thing they can do is support parents to assist their children’s recovery.

“Children will naturally seek support from their parents and so they should. We should not be disempowering parents.”

World Vision has been working in the Gaza strip since 2001 providing agriculture and livelihoods assistance for the poor and most vulnerable families and psychosocial support for children. World Vision has been forced to temporarily suspend operations in Gaza due to the violence but will carry out an emergency response when the security situation allows.

Ms Schafer, who is based in Australia, has supported work in Gaza for about five years, providing psychosocial support to farmers and their families. The programs have been suspended due to the current fighting. Ms Schafer hopes to return to Gaza in September to continue work in mental health and psychosocial support.

ENDS

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