By Eloy Perez
With bullets flying and bombs dropping front and center in city squares, populated villages, and areas of heavy child population density, when and where do the minds of the young and vulnerable arrive at the cross roads leading to the determination of how each individual child will come to live in his or her altered social structure? Cultural and community aspects such as attitudes towards mental health and healing, as well as the meaning given to the experience of war itself are important influences of the child’s cross roads determination, along with their larger social structure. Looking at the concept of mental health in children affected by armed conflict, research has documented the many ways in which exposure to war-related traumatic events contributes to subsequent mental health distress, and in some cases, long-term psychopathology in children. War-affected children should pay particular attention to coping and meaning making at the individual level; the role of attachment relationships, caregiver health, resources and connection in the family, and social support available in peer and extended social networks will determine whether the child falls victim to the insurgents or social agents responsible for altering the current ecological structure.
Ever changing tactics and technology of warfare have extremely magnified hazards to children and destructively altered their current living social structures. Wars are increasingly fought within states and involve non-state actors, such as rebel or terrorist groups less likely to be aware of, or abide by, humanitarian laws providing for the protection of civilians and children. Armed conflicts are dramatically altering the lives of children around the world, in 2006 UNICEF reported that conflicts in the last decade have killed an estimated 2 million children and have left another 6 million disabled, 20 million homeless, and over 1 million separated from their parents. A classic study of children during the British evacuations of World War II concluded that, for children, evacuation and the subsequent family separation caused more emotional strain than exposure to air raids. The ability of the caregiver to comfort the child and help them make meaning of frightening events is critical in the child’s process of coping. In the end, some theorists have argued, the psychological effects of violence on children may be more dependent on the influence of close, reliable attachment figures to provide support during and following difficult events more than the abject degree of the actual violence witnessed by the child (Henshaw 95).
As a result, modern ‘wars of destabilization’ often rupture the fabric of life that supports healthy child development. Wars sever families and extended social structures, interrupt service systems and often feed fuel to the fires of deep ethnic and political divides. For children, war represents a fundamental alteration of the social ecology and structure which supports child development in addition to risk of personal physical endangerment. All in all, the restoration of a damaged social structure and the availability of solid coping mechanism is fundamental in improving the prevention of negative mental health and rehabilitative interventions for war-affected children.
- Henshaw EM, Howarth HE. Observed effects of wartime condition of children. Mental Health. 1941;2:93–101.