Mental Health Awareness in Adolescent Syrian Refugees

By Natalie Krafft

This essay was written by a TCP alum and former Denobis staff member during her freshman year of college.

Ahmed is a young boy, aged eleven, who has just fled Syria from all of its war and devastation. He has left his home, his friends and life as he knew it to flee to Greece. Since being in Greece, he has not been in school for a year and greatly misses his friends. The camp he lives in now is filled with diseases and has poor living conditions. The refugees who live here wait weeks or months before a soldier takes them to a new home. Now, all he wishes is to go to school to be with the other children and to be like them. This feeling of being ostracized is all too normal for him, which has lead him to be more melancholy than he typically was when he was back home (Katz).

For millions of children like Ahmed, this is their reality now, and it is taking a toll on their mental health, which will negatively affect them for the rest of their lives. Families of all sizes abandon everything they know for their safety. Adolescent refugees who are brought with these families have already faced trauma even before they left through the violence and death in their home regions. Their journey to a safer place is just as dangerous and once they arrive, nothing seems to be better right away. For a young person under the age of 19 to experience something as a traumatic as fleeing a war torn country can have some major consequences on their mental health that, if not addressed, could erupt into something much larger and darker such as depression and anxiety. Adolescent Syrian refugees are facing mental health problems because of the displacement from their homeland due to war.

The Syrian War first began in March of 2011 in the city of Daraa. Pro-democracy protests had erupted after news of teenagers who were arrested and tortured for painting revolutionary signs. People began to call for President Assad’s resignation, but no government action resulted. Soon after in 2012, Syria had fallen into a civil war and by June of 2013, 90,000 people were estimated to have been killed. It is this civil war that has forced 4.5 million Syrians, mostly women and children, to flee their home to safer living conditions (Rodgers). Since then, 79% of all child refugees have lost a family member of some sort due to the war (“Updates”). The considerable amount of refugees who are fleeing to surrounding countries are overwhelming these said countries because they themselves do not have enough resources to help the refugees in need.

The Syrian War itself is a problem that has yet to be resolved, causing devastating effects on millions of refugees (Rodgers). The millions of children and adolescents fleeing have all experienced trauma before they even leave. Adolescents, children ages 10-19, are at a very impressionable age where dramatic events in their lives can affect them greatly (Canada). While they are fleeing, they endure living conditions that are barely survivable. Once they do find a place to settle, they have a difficult time adapting to their new environment. Where they now live is cramped, so disease spreads often and fast. Many of them have also left behind most if not all of their belongings. These all take a toll on their mental health which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety in adolescents (Hellis).

Countries and societies often focus on the sheer number of refugees and their physical health rather than their mental health. A recent study done in Germany found that half of all refugees are mentally ill, typically with PTSD; nearly 40% of those with PTSD have been found to be suicidal. In adolescent refugees in particular, 1 in 5 suffer from PTSD, which is 15 times higher than children who were born in Germany (“Updates”). Although psychotherapy has been recommended for those refugees in Germany, not nearly enough of them are getting treated due to several barriers. One rather obvious barrier is language. Communicating to the therapist is important in getting treatment, but that cannot happen if the refugee and the therapist speak different languages. Also, the cost of therapy is too expensive for a refugee. Often times they hardly have enough money for their own food and shelter, which is especially true if they are seeking help while they are moving.

In adolescent refugees, PTSD leads to other illnesses. The PTSD they do suffer from stems from stress, the losses they have suffered, disruption of basic needs and of course, trauma. Parents will stress about their children and likewise, children will stress about their parents and sibling’s health and happiness. It is thought their resettlement and experience in foreign places also contributes to their PTSD, depression, and anxiety (Hellis). This is due to the fact that to leave a violent country only to face constant instability in the future can cause mental illnesses.

Living conditions also contribute to the state of adolescent mental health. Refugee camps are often overcrowded, with more people living in the camp than what the population capacity can handle. In Lebanon, mothers are forced to wrap their babies in plastic bags to prevent them from getting wet, cold, and sick. They cannot afford to buy their children proper clothes. Getting vaccinations is also said to be nearly impossible, leading to disease outbreaks (Lum). One Canadian nurse who visited a Lebanese Syrian camp could barely describe the smell of urine and feces in the air, concluding the conditions were “utterly inhumane” (Lum). Families of all sizes live in tents with others for years, making the living conditions cramped and filthy. These conditions are inhumane for any refugee of any age to live in.

However, some countries have shown that they are capable of taking care of these refugees. Turkey, for example has a health system that “is quite well developed and remarkably equitable” (Sahool). There are physicians, clinics and even emergency rooms in Turkish camps such as Islahyie. Some countries are struggling to keep up with the basic human needs of these refugees while others have seemingly figured out a way to manage these populations of people. Either way, having to move from the comfort of one’s home to conditions that are barely livable is traumatic.

There are solutions to the mental health illnesses found in Syrian refugees. One would be to find a way to stop the Syrian War to prevent any more refugees from leaving. By arming the opposition of President Assad and dismantling his ‘regime’, currently neutral countries could end the Syrian conflict. Creating an environment that would allow Syrian refugees to return home is vital to not only the refugees’ life and health, but also the stability of Syria itself (Walsh). An entirely different solution would be to accept President Assad, and even support him as a means to unify the country. Although this is rather unpopular amongst most Syrians, it is a solution that should be kept open for the sheer sake of unifying Syria. The idea of also splitting up Syria into four parts has also been explored. Syria could potentially be split up into Kurdish, ISIS, other opposition, and regime factions (Walsh). While these solutions are all feasible, any one would take time as Syria is recovering from the violence and heartbreak.

For adolescent Syrian refugees, one way for them to combat their own mental health issues is to see an expert, whether it be a therapist or a psychologist. The first step in tackling any problem is identifying what it is. By seeing a professional to explain what is going on, this helps them to better understand how and what they are feeling. Therapy is suggested for any refugee in order to help them better adapt to their new environment which would in turn help them to better cope with their issues. Instead of focusing on their mental illness, they can focus more on trying to attain a more normal life like the one they used to know back home. Testimonial therapy is one such treatment that is being considered. It essentially is a way of story-telling that helps the survivor to overcome their trauma by using it for political purposes. It helps them to feel empowered which in turn gives them confidence to beat their mental illness (“Review”).

“Testimonial psychotherapy may be a promising technique for older adolescents that borrows from previously tested treatments such as exposure and desensitization, relaxation training, and cognitive restructuring” (“Review”).

This therapy seems promising for the adolescent refugees of Syria especially. Supportive counseling, individual, group and family therapy are also all solutions that could potentially help the child refugees overcome their mental health struggles.

Integration would also be a key solution for these refugees. By integrating more young Syrians in schools, more refugees can a balanced and normal life. Schools should consider holding some classes in Arabic, as this would help ease learning for Syrians in a foreign country and would also help lessen the impact of fear in a new place. Keeping these Syrian refugees together in an area that is not a camp would help bring back a sense of normality.

Adolescence is a very impressionable age, as one is going through puberty and hormonal changes during this time. To be caught in the crossfire of war and to have everything one cares about destroyed leaves a heavy impact, especially at the adolescent stage when one is so vulnerable. The children and adolescents of the Syrian war are facing similar issues. Many of the children refugees have lost a loved one in this brutal war. Once they leave with their families to a safer home, the journey is arduous and often difficult. They go from living comfortably at their home in Syria, to overcrowded and disease filled camps that leave little room to grow. After they have found a new home, readjusting is often a challenge. They do not fit in because they do not look, speak, or act like the other children. All the while, they are haunted by the past traumas they have seen and are even more worried about not only their future, but the future of their parents and siblings. To not address the fact that adolescent refugees are suffering from mental health illnesses would be to force them into even more suffering in the future. These children are burdened with PTSD, sometimes, before they can even go to school. This PTSD festers, and grows into depression and anxiety, both serious issues that are difficult to deal with. However, there are ways to help cope with these mental health problems. Different kinds of therapy have signs of promise in helping refugees recover, yet there is still more we can do. Offering these treatments at some price refugees can afford, and making them more available with translators would be one big motivator for the refugee themselves to seek treatment. Ending the Syrian war is another way to end the Syrian Refugee Crisis. However, these young refugees need the most help as they are the ones who will be growing up in a new society and could eventually even be impacting it as well as an adult. Their future depends on the ability of other countries to help treat the mental illnesses that are actively hurting them.


Works Cited

Canada Pediatric Society. “Age Limits and Adolescents.” Pediatrics & Child Health. Pulsus   Group Inc., 9 Nov. 2003. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

Hellis, B. Heidi. “Trauma and Mental Health in Child and Adolescent Refugees.” Trauma & Mental Health in Child and Adolescent Refugees (n.d.): n. pg. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

Katz, Andrew. “In the Eyes of a Young Syrian Refugee.” TIME Lightbox. TIME, 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

Lum, Zi-Ann. “Conditions In Syrian Refugees Camps ‘Utterly Inhumane’: Toronto Nurse.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

“Review of Child and Adolescent Refugee Mental Health.” White Paper (n.d.): n. pag. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

Rodgers, Lucy, David Gritten, James Offer, and Patrick Asare. “Syria: The Story of the Conflict.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

Sahlool, Zaher. “Evaluation Report of Health Care Services at the Syrian Refugee Camps in Turkey.” Avicenna Journal of Medicine, 28 July 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

“Updates.” Bundespsychotherapeutenkammer Detailansicht Der Aktuellen Nachric. N.p., 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Walsh, Nick Paton. “How Can the War in Syria Be Stopped?” CNN. Cable News Network, 15 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.