THE BLOG
12/02/2016 14:44 GMT | Updated 12/02/2017 05:12 GMT

The Hidden Effect of War on Children

After almost a quarter of a Century of war and conflict, large swathes of Iraq are once again being subsumed by violence. Generations of children have known nothing but war. Thousands have been killed and many more have suffered life-changing injuries.

Now, once again, chaos reigns with the monsters of Daesh running riot in the North and West. But whilst the spiralling numbers of dead and injured may grab headlines, just as devastating - but far less reported - are the conflict's traumatic effects on children's mental health.

Young people in Iraq have witnessed sights that no child should ever have to see. Many have experienced bombardment, with shells raining down upon their family homes in the middle of the night. Some have been forced to watch as their parents, siblings and friends were abducted or killed in front of them. Others have themselves been kidnapped by Daesh - forced to become child soldiers, or locked up as sex slaves, at the mercy of these men's perverted desires.

Recently, one of the doctors who works for my charity, the AMAR Foundation, told me of a nine year old he had met. "She was held by Daesh and raped every day," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "When she escaped, she refused to speak for weeks on end. She simply couldn't begin to digest the horrors she had been through. I cannot comprehend this type of violence - how on earth can we expect children to?"

Millions of others have been forced to flee their homes - bound for a life of uncertainty in Iraq's sprawling camps or congested host communities. Over two million are without access to education - deprived not only of academic activities, but the traditional support network offered by peers.

With so many sources of trauma, rates of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) are rapidly on the rise amongst Iraq's youth. Vulnerable and impressionable, children are increasingly displaying symptoms of psychological ill-health as they grapple to comprehend the violence and confusion surrounding them. According to estimates, at least 40,000 are in urgent need of psychological therapy - but with limited resources, these needs are going unmet.

Bed wetting, night terrors, behavioural problems, academic difficulties, constant anxiety, loss of appetite, social introversion - all remain untreated. "My daughter really struggles to sleep," one father told me recently when I visited Khanke Camp in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq. "She keeps waking, asking if she can go home."

These poor children urgently need our support so that they can recover, but all too often, mental health is regarded as a secondary issue - overshadowed by primary physical health needs.

But when we provide them with the right environment and a sense of protection and support, children can be extremely resilient to trauma.

Every time I visit Iraq, I am shocked by the bravery and determination of the children I encounter. Zeynab, for example. A 15 year old girl whose entire world was turned upside down in the summer of 2014 when Daesh attacked her home in Tal Afar. The teenager's mother and several cousins were killed by a missile strike, and she lost both of her legs.

Despite the horrors she witnessed, Zeynab remains a fiercely determined young woman who remains hopeful for a better future. AMAR's staff have been visiting her regularly in Baghdad, providing her with a much-needed support network whilst overseeing the inspirational young lady's recovery. Just the simple act of regular contact has boosted her ability to remain positive.

Elsewhere, we are witnessing the positive effects of recreational therapy. Working with local teachers who have been trained in Children's Accelerated Trauma Therapy (CATT), AMAR's unique therapeutic storytelling sessions are helping children to move beyond the trauma they have experienced.

Using two expertly designed books which tackle issues such as loss and displacement for a young audience, our teachers are holding regular reading sessions for children living in camps. Whilst keeping a keen eye on students, referring any in need to specialist care at AMAR's clinics, they are encouraging children to talk about their feelings in a safe and secure manner.

Perhaps most importantly, they are allowing children to reclaim their childhoods.

"My daughters were so happy when I first read the book to them," commented Hussein, one of the teachers involved in our storytelling sessions. "They were jumping around our tent acting like the frogs in the story. It made me so happy to see them playing like children again after all that they have been through."

AMAR's teams are working around the clock to help children recover from the ordeal of war. But more needs to be done if we want to prevent Iraq from losing an entire generation.

We are currently running an appeal called #Escaping Darkness which is raising money to train local professionals in psychiatric medicine.

Mental health can no longer be viewed as a subsidiary to physical health. As Children's Mental Health Week - so excellently championed by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge - comes to an end, I implore the international community to readdress its approach to healthcare within conflict zones and to remember the mental health needs of war's victims.

Their scars may not be visible, but Iraq's children urgently need our help.