By Hussein Al-alak
The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme is the leading Palestinian non-governmental organization which provides mental health services to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. In a recent statement, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child warned the recent attacks by Israel, has had a “devastating and lasting impact” on children, with “deep trauma and other psychological effects on children on both sides of the border.”
One young Palestinian boy reported witnessing his brother’s decapitation when metal from an Israeli bombing tore off the victim’s head as he slept. Hundreds more have been wounded. And for those children who escape the physical toll of the war, there is a heavy psychological price to be paid. Many are traumatized by what they have seen and heard, terrified by a relentless air campaign, and unable to process the violence and death that surrounds them.
Psychologist Hasan Zeyada, who has worked with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme since 1991, says the territory’s children are those most at risk during war. “All the things that can help adults – social networks, previous experiences and so on – are not available to children.”
The trauma manifests itself in multiple ways, with children becoming terrified to be left alone, experiencing sleep disorders, becoming aggressive or uncommunicative, and losing the ability to concentrate. For many of Gaza’s children, the current round of violence will be the second war they have lived through, after Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day campaign Israel launched at the end of December 2008. “They will re-experience a lot of the trauma they have from the past,” said Zeyada, whose organization is operating crisis intervention teams but their work will be difficult.
“The problem here in Gaza is that we are living in a high level of stress and ongoing trauma. No one can guarantee that this will not happen again.”
Studies in Vietnam, Palestine, and Kuwait suggest that children who witness intense violence at a young age will suffer stress disorders that can affect their neurobiology, development, and cognition, thereby scarring them permanently. Compared to children who haven’t been exposed to violent trauma, children of war experience much higher rates of depression and rage.
Symptoms during the early stages include detachment and aggression as well as insomnia, bed-wetting, and nightmares. Children who suffer stress disorders also risk developing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can give rise to suicidal thoughts and violent behavior later in life.
Diane Araki, the Chief of the UNICEF Field Office in Gaza, said she had witnessed a number of children suffering, saying that “I was seeing children who have been injured by the conflict, and children on ventilators, children bruised, they were very much suffering.”
The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme is committed to aid women, children, and victims of violence, torture, and human rights violations. The organization has over 135 employees, is involved with 18 international, regional and local coalitions and networks, and has treated over 20,000 clients – they need your help today!
– Hussein Al-alak contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.