The Psychosocial Impacts of War and Armed Conflict on Children

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A call to action both to support the youngest victims of war and to prevent future trauma.

COMMENTARY

Children in Ukraine are at an elevated risk of chronic distress unless the international community intervenes quickly by demanding an immediate stop to the military assault by Russia.

War and violence create a vicious dysfunctional cycle, a deadly trap that primarily impacts the children. The trauma of war, especially one of a protracted nature, deprives children of a much-needed time for cognitive-emotional processing and self-healing.

Children living in war zones and areas of armed conflicts do not live normal lives. They watch their homes being demolished and see their family members, neighbors, and friends getting injured or killed. They might not have the words to express what has happened to them; instead, they share their stories through behaviors like lashing out or shutting down. They may regress in age-appropriate behaviors, have difficulty sleeping, become unable to perform activities of daily living, and/or struggle behaviorally, academically, and relationally.

We have heard of Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Yemenis, and Rohingya refugees; now as history repeats itself we write about Ukrainian refugees. Unfortunately, it is the nature of this beast; no one is immune to trauma. Humans can inflict pain upon each other, but they also can (and should) invest in healing. It is our moral responsibility to refuse to hate. This blazing fire must be extinguished, not fed.

The damage done by war-related trauma can never be undone. We can, however, help reduce its long-term impacts, which can span generations. When we reach within ourselves to discover our humanity, it allows us to reach out to the innocent children and remind them of their resilience and beauty. Trauma can make or break us as individuals, families, and communities.

Not all wounds are visible. We need to take proactive measures to prevent a psychosocial crisis—a pandemic that may be both more silent and more deadly than the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Children need to feel safe to regain their voice and make meaning out of the pain they endured.

We do not have to be therapists to be therapeutic. We all can help the children of war worldwide when we ensure that their basic needs are met, when we treat them with compassion, build culturally humble services and resources, and empower them and their caregivers. We also help when we look after our own wounds as mental health professionals through self-care.

More importantly, our highest priority as a society should be eradicating the sources of the trauma and alleviating the suffering of these children. This war is not only a psychosocial issue requiring psychosocial solutions but political ones as well. We cannot continue to place a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound. We need to stop the source of the bleeding. The vicious cycle of war and violence will end when human dignity and human rights are respected.

War is ugly. Nothing good ever comes out of war. The loudest sound you hear during wars is that of broken hearts.

May we strive for justice and compassion, and may we have some common sense to grow up and stop fighting one another, for the sake of our children and future generations.

Dr Farajallah is a psychologist at Hyde Street Community Services Inc serving the underserved population who suffers from mental illness and addiction. She also works as an adjunct faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and is a professor at Sofia University in Palo Alto. Dr Farajallah is a researcher at the Muslims & Mental Health Lab at Stanford University, and is researching and developing treatments tailored to the specific needs of the Muslim population for the American Psychiatric Association. She also provides training on PTSD and trauma to psychology students in the Gaza Strip. Dr Reda is practicing psychiatrist in Providence Healthcare System, Portland, OR. He has provided psychiatric and humanistic care to trauma survivors around the world. Dr Reda’s newest book The Wounded Healer: The Pain and Joy of Caregiving is available on March 15, 2022. Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. He has recently been leading Tikkun Olam advocacy movements on climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM. Dr Peteet is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Fellowship Site Director for Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr Hankir is a doctor working in frontline psychiatry for the National Health Service at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in the United Kingdom.