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Save the Children report: Syrian children suffering 'toxic stress'

After more than half a decade of war, many Syrian children are turning to self-harm and suicide, a Save the Children report has found. One teacher in Madaya said children there were "psychologically crushed and tired."

As the sixth anniversary of the Syrian war approaches, aid organization Save the Children has called to prioritize mental health issues before children develop lasting complications that will be carried into adulthood.

A report by the charity, published on Tuesday, found that Syrian children were showing symptoms of "toxic stress" and attempting self-harm and suicide in response to prolonged exposure to war.

According to Save the Children, at least 3 million children are estimated to be living in areas with exposure to high-explosive weapons and that at least 3 million youngsters under age six know nothing but war.

Watch video 00:48

Generation trauma: children born during the Syrian civil war

'Potentially irreversible damage'

"After six years of war, we are at a tipping point, after which the impact on children's formative years and childhood development may be so great that the damage could be permanent and irreversible," said Marcia Brophy, a mental health adviser for Save the Children in the Middle East.

Compiling the report, researchers spoke with 450 children, adolescents and adults in seven of Syria's 14 governorates. Adults said the main cause of psychological stress was the constant shelling and bombardment that characterize the war.

Schools and hospitals have been regularly targeted, destroying the very institutions that can support traumatized children when they need it most.

Brain and organ development can suffer

According to the findings, 80 percent of those interviewed said children had become more aggressive and 71 percent said children increasingly suffered from frequent bedwetting and involuntary urination - "both common symptoms of toxic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder among children."

Other symptoms of toxic stress, which overlap with those of post-traumatic stress disorder, can disrupt the development of the brain and other organs, and trigger mental health disorders and addiction in adulthood, said Alexandra Chen, a child protection and mental health specialist based at Harvard University.

Watch video 01:30

Saving Syria's children

Suicide and self-harm

Sonia Khush, Save the Children's Syria director, also cited instances of attempted suicide and self-harm. In the besieged town of Madaya, six teenagers - the youngest a 12-year-old girl - had attempted suicide in recent months, said Khush.

The report quoted a teacher in Madaya who said children there were "psychologically crushed and tired."

"They draw images of children being butchered in the war, or tanks, or the siege and the lack of food."

"Children wish they were dead and that they would go to heaven to be warm and eat and play," said Hala, another teacher in Madaya.

Lack of medical professionals

According to the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights, the arrest, torture and execution of many doctors has caused medical professionals to flee the country. 

As a result, some residents know of just one psychiatrist in regions encompassing more than a million people, the Save the Children report said.

"We are failing children inside Syria,  some of whom are being left to cope with harrowing experiences, from witnessing their parents killed in front of them to the horrors of life under siege, without proper support," mental health adviser Brophy said.

ksb/tj (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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