The news has been replete with the tragedies within the Gaza Strip, Palestine. I recently wrote on some of the realities of children in the war zones. It is frightening and so destructive to their lives. What is more tragic is where all of these realities leave these children psychologically.
When Iman Farajallah was growing up in Gaza, she says she witnessed the first and second intifadas — Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank — and subsequent wars with Israel.
“The experience was so vicious, so scary, so harmful that there are no words that you can actually describe it,” says Farajallah, a psychologist who now lives in the United States and works with refugee children at a community clinic in San Francisco.
According to Palestinian health officials, of the more than 10,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza in the past month, about 4,000 were children. Gaza is becoming a “graveyard for children,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday.
Children of Gaza: Tragedy Beyond War
Even as the World Health Organization warns about the spread of infectious diseases in Gaza, some researchers are concerned that those children who do survive might be scarred for the rest of their lives.
Many children struggle with symptoms of physical trauma, says Farajallah. “A lot of them have been impacted by the bombs,” she says. “So they have scars. They have splinters and fragments in their body. Some of them [have] lost their limbs, some of them have lost their eyesight.”
She also saw a whole range of mental and behavioral health symptoms among children in Gaza, like “fear of darkness, general tension, flashback, nightmares, avoidance, difficulty sleeping and a recollection of their trauma.”
Another set of researchers, Dubow and colleagues state that “Most of us, when we’re exposed to violence, it’s abhorrent to us. We reject it. We think it’s horrible.”
From Innocence to Aggression: Gaza’s Children in Crisis
But when children are constantly exposed to violence from a young age, some start to become desensitized to it. “By becoming numb to the violence we see, it makes it a lot easier to accept violence as a typical way of responding to a social situation,” he adds.
Both children in Gaza and those in Israeli who are also directly exposed to the Hamas attacks are now at a greater risk of long-term post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, says Dubow.
A Legacy of Trauma
Not only are these children desensitized to violence, but they are more aggressive because they see that violence is a viable way to handle conflict. They also are suffering tremendously from the PTSD that is a daily part of their life and process.
Sadly, they have lost all innocence and are becoming exactly what they dread the most; violent and insensitive to the brutality, individuals who will be filled with anxiety and destructive behavior. This violence is creating a profile in the children that will propagate the same behavior that has victimized them and will last their lifetime. This cycle of violence will leave a legacy of more of the same as they become angry, violent, and mentally compromised adults that will be carriers of these same symptoms into the next generation.
Mental Health Support for Gaza’s Youth
What a significant mental health profile for anyone to have to live with. We desperately need to first provide safety for these children, and secondly and importantly, mental health services if we are going to change the trajectories from hopelessness to healthier environments for them. Only if we intervene will they have any chance to live a life that is free from traumatic stress and the corresponding mental deficits that will surely follow.