Iraqi Children: Bearing the Scars of War
What psychological damage is being done to the children of Iraq?
- UNICEF states that almost two million children have been displaced from their homes since the last war began.
- Researchers have found that children with PTSD are likely to experience a decrease in the size of the brain area important in memory processing and emotion.
- It is easy to see children's psychological status being affected by daily explosions, killings, abductions, threatening noises and turmoil in Iraq's main cities.
The great number of Iraqi children affected by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the saddest, and least known, legacies of the Iraq war.
That a new clinic for their treatment — opened last August in Baghdad — is the first of its kind says a lot about how this problem is being addressed.
Dr. Haider Maliki and his team at the Central Pediatric Teaching Hospital in Baghdad have treated hundreds of children suffering from PTSD. Hundreds of thousands remain untreated.
Dr. Maliki, who is the only child psychiatrist in the entire country working at a government hospital, hasn't even been trained as a child psychiatrist. He only took up the position when he saw the tremendous needs for that kind of professional in the country. It is well-known that children are particularly vulnerable to stress, violence and displacement.
Hardly a week still passes by in Iraq without renewed signs of violence that leave both children and adults with permanent mental scars. Dr. Haithi Al Sady, the dean of the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University, has been studying the effects of PTSD in Iraqi children.
According to him, 28% of Iraqi children suffer some degree of PTSD, and their numbers are steadily rising. It is easy to see children's psychological status being affected by daily explosions, killings, abductions, threatening noises and turmoil in Iraq's main cities.
PTSD in children can affect their brain and lead to long-term effects that will alter their development. Researchers at Stanford University's School of Medicine found that children with PTSD were likely to experience a decrease in the size of the brain area known as the hippocampus, which is a brain structure important in memory processing and emotion.
Stress sustained over a long period of time is likely to cause more serious effects. More than half a million Iraqi children had been traumatized by conflict, according to a 2003 UNICEF report.
UNICEF states that almost two million children have been displaced from their homes since the last war began. "Iraqi children, already casualties of a quarter of a century of conflict and deprivation, are being caught up in a rapidly worsening humanitarian tragedy,” according to that organization. "Iraqi children are paying far too high a price," stated Roger Wright, UNICEF's Special Representative for Iraq in December of 2007.
Information collected by UNICEF from different sources support his assertion. By the end of 2007, approximately 75,000 children had resorted to living in camps or temporary shelters. Many of the 220,000 displaced children of primary school age had their education interrupted. This is in addition to the estimated 760,000 children already out of primary school in 2006.
Hundreds of children held in prison — some as young as nine years old — are kept in overcrowded cells and are frequent targets of sexual abuse by prison guards, according to information from current and former child prisoners.
As the major forces behind the invasion of Iraq, both the United States and Great Britain are responsible not only for maintaining order, but also for responding to the medical needs of the population. Children's mental health is among the most urgent of those needs.
What is now needed is to increase funding for UNICEF and other organizations working with children and vulnerable groups in Iraq. New clinics addressing the mental health needs of children should be created.
In addition, U.S., British and other European professionals with experience in working in conflict situations and with PTSD-affected children can give valuable assistance. A generation of Iraqi children has already paid too high a price for this war.