by Verity Bowman, theguardian.comApril 9, 2018
Close to 25,000 under 18s suffering psychological damage in chaos and violence following catastrophic tremors, says World Health Organisation
|Stanton, 10, standing on the remains of his home in Daga, Papua New Guinea. Photograph: Thomas Nybo/Unicef|
As many as 25,000 children in Papua New Guinea are in desperate need of psychological support following a series of devastating earthquakes, warned the World Health Organisation.
The PNG government estimates 270,000 people are in need of urgent assistance, including 125,000 children. Of these, 15% to 20% need psychological help, the WHO said. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake on 26 February was followed by almost 200 aftershock tremors in the last 40 days. Some of these have reached a magnitude of 6.5.
According to Kate Dischino of Americares, a charity working in the country, the aftershocks and lack of stability are causing significant psychological issues.
“The need for mental healthcare is much greater than anyone had anticipated.
"It’s been nearly 45 days since the first earthquake happened and people are still uncertain how they’re going to see their families and where they’re going to sleep at night.
"The aftershocks are truly frightening, so mental health and psychosocial survival becomes more of a priority every day.”
Among those worst affected are children. Karen Allen, Unicef representative to PNG, said lack of water and shelter and threat of disease compound mental trauma, adding to the suffering caused by ongoing violence in the country.
“Children are still being confronted by fear, loss, confusion, family separation, deteriorated living conditions and disruption of social and school activities. "Psychological damage among children should not be overlooked.
" It can have a negative impact on brain development, mental health and overall wellbeing in the long run.”
Children who have suffered trauma have an increased risk of delayed development, mental health disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide, she added.
“I was terrified when the earth started shaking,” Stanton, 10, told Unicef, standing on the remains of his home in Daga, after the earthquakes destroyed seven out of ten homes in the village.
“I tried to run far away, but it was dark and I was confused.”
Stanton managed to escape but said his family had been left with nothing.
Existing tensions in the area are worsening the situation.
There has been a renewed outbreak of violence in Hela province, one of the worst hit by the earthquake, with animosity aggravated by poor mental health and scarce resources.
Thousands have been displaced and are unable to return to their villages.
“It is children who are witness to this and sometimes even become involved in it, either as victims in some cases – when they’re shot or they’re slashed – or sometimes the men put the weapons in the hands of children,” said Allen.
“There are children even under the age of 10 running around with weapons.
"It’s this normalisation of extreme violence that will affect children the most.”
Before the earthquake, children in PNG were already at high risk of violence and abuse.
According to Unicef, about 75% of children report experiences of physical abuse and about 80% experience emotional abuse during their lifetime.
A recent Médecins Sans Frontières report showed that 12,000 cases of family and sexual violence are treated each year in Tari Family Support Centre, Hela province.
With 100 schools affected and five totally destroyed, 15,000 children are out of school. Unicef has responded by creating child-friendly spaces, intended to provide both emotional and educational support.
Unicef child protection specialist Ali Aulia Ramly said these safe temporary learning spaces would help give local children the support they need.
“The teachers and volunteers are trained to assist children in expressing their feelings and emotions and to process [them] in a culturally appropriate way.
*We are building their resilience.”