The Overlooked Mental Health Needs of Refugee Children

Image Source:

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has caused an unprecedented mass displacement of 11 million Syrians. Out of the 4.95 million Syrian refugees who moved to neighboring countries, more than half are children under the age of 18. Among Syrian refugees under the age of 12, around 40% underwent trauma related to war or persecution, tumultuous migration, the resettlement process, or death of family or friends.

Refugee children face a wide array of mental health issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to severe emotional disorders to intellectual and developmental disorders. While they are in dire need of mental health care, these children often face several barriers to accessing services. Barriers include the limited availability of services, limited financing for services, and a lack of skilled mental health providers. Within Syria, the situation has been aggravated by the systematic destruction of medical facilities, so there is only one partially functioning hospital providing mental health care. In addition, host countries do not have national strategies for coping with the health care needs of Syrian refugees, and face many other challenges such as budgeting (Jordan) or language barriers (Turkey).

Given the current level of political, social, and financial burden, stakeholders such as the WHO, UNHCR, and MercyCorps should assist the Syrian and host country governments with an internationally coordinated effort to address the mental health needs of refugee children. International stakeholders can offer cross-regional technical guidance, monitoring and evaluation, and skilled human resources
to support the development and implementation of policies that ensure the provision of adequate mental health services in
page-22-image-104Baldwin_131010_IMG193refugee children in Syria and host countries.These efforts must include the training of Syrian psychologists and the expansion of mental health workforce, who could provide culturally appropriate, community-based psychosocial support. Doing so will strengthen the mental health care system, providing more and higher quality care to refugee children in the long run.

Image Source: UNHCR. The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis  This picture was drawn by a nine-year-old boy while his family were registering as refugees at Tyre registration centre, Lebanon. The bus that he and his family took to flee their home in Syria was stopped and robbed by armed men. To the right of the bus, the boy has written the word ‘death.’

4 Responses to “The Overlooked Mental Health Needs of Refugee Children”

  1. tomoyok Says:

    Your post brought one of the most painful memory during my collage year. I had a student from one of the country in Middle Easts in my class. We started in English program for international student. As we were all new in the United States, we became very close. He was a smartest student with GPA of 4.0. As smart as he was, he quickly get accepted to regular classed in the collage with American students. He suffered severe PTSD. He told me that he witnessed his brothers and sisters killed in front of him in their house, and almost got killed too. Unfortunately, the college did not set up appropriate mental health support for the group of students from the conflict, and he eventually had mental health breakdown, and left the collage. Even though we, the friends in the international community, tried to support him, his PTSD was too severe for us to handle. When I saw his suffering, I realized the impact of the violence toward people and how mental health resulting from the conflict destroy people.

  2. desormeaux1 Says:

    Your post raises a very important issue that’s often neglected when dealing wit refugee population. Mental health issues are usually not addressed because they are often not immediately apparent. Children are especially vulnerable because those issues can interfere with development, social and emotional, and can alter their views of themselves and the world around them. Although the nutritional status and prevention of infectious disease is important for refugee populations, it’s important to integrate mental health into the primary healthcare package that’s offered.

  3. DeBonsu Says:

    Hello! Thank you for your blog entry! You definitely highlighted an area that does not receive much national and international attention in developing countries- mental health. The fact that there is only one partially functioning mental health institution in Syria is astounding given the fact that, as you mentioned, there are 4.95 million refugees all at risk of suffering from PTSD. What makes this situation even sadder is that it does not discriminate between adults and children and puts children at a risk of suffering from PTSD for the rest of their lives without the proper coping strategies. I appreciate the fact that you mentioned culturally appropriate community based support in your answer due to the fact that culture is so important, particularly in impoverished societies. Mental health sanctions must find a way to incorporate the Syrian culture into their efforts without being too intrusive in order to ensure that they are accepted by the population at large. This is a challenge for most development efforts as it can be difficult to find a perfect balance between culture/ traditional beliefs and modernization efforts. I would be interested to see what specific examples you would recommend for this course of action.

  4. mingzliu Says:

    Thank you for sharing this information through your blog post and highlighting such an important unmet need! In all the news and public awareness about the refugee crisis, I think that the statistic that more than half are under 18 years old still shocks people. I think you brought up a really important aspect of the problem in mentioning that host countries also do not have national strategies in place for coping with the mental health needs of refugees, especially refugee children. It seems like this would be very understandable in Syria, where there is only partially functioning hospital providing mental health services, but this is also a problem in the United States. In my volunteer placement with the Refugee Youth Project and Baltimore Resettlement Center, I have had the opportunity to talk with staff about what mental health services they are able to provide and the obstacles they are facing. The staff I talked with were also frustrated because they felt that they didn’t have the resources and funding to adequately address the mental health needs of the refugee children, and a big obstacle was finding mental health providers and translators trained to provide culturally competent care. I think bringing more awareness and support to this issue is very important.

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