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Acknowledging the PTSD that emerges in students who witness conflict

This post will discuss the mental health problems that emerge among children that are living in conflict inflicted zones, while focusing on Swat.

Till 2009, the Swat valley was under the rule of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan who committed acts of violence against government security forces, elders and other civilians that were opposed to the group. Recently, there have been instances of the TTP’s re-emergence in the Swat Valley as they have been accused of carrying out targeted killings once again after more than a decade.

So, the school-going children during the initial rule of the TTP witnessed and suffered through instances of extreme violence and thus they were victims of mental health problems. Inevitably, the children who are going to school in 2022 will also suffer the same fate. However, these mental health problems are never recognized and addressed.

A study was conducted by the Department of Community Health Sciences at Hamdard College to research the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) amongst young people in the Swat Valley. The results of the study showed that the subjects had experienced 16 out of 17 symptoms of PTSD (as set out in criteria mentioned in the Diagnostic and statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-1V (DSM-1V). Some of these symptoms include:

1. Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event.

2.Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world.

3.Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior.

The results of the study ranged from a high of 79% for ‘psychological distress and exposure to cues’ to a low of 32% for ‘sense of a foreshortened future’. The study also indicated that students are affected differently depending on their gender, the nature of the event, such as the devastation and destruction that has occurred, and the injuries and lives lost.

Similar studies have been done in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Algeria that establish the potential link of the aftermath of conflict to psychological issues and higher rates of prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the survivors. Moreover, PTSD is a mental disorder that has long-lasting and harmful effects on a person’s health and quality of life. In addition, PTSD has a direct association with substance abuse, self-harm and other co-morbid psychiatric disorders.

Evidently, students who are suffering from PTSD are not able to have a normal school-going experience even after the conflict has ended. The mental health care system in Swat is not equipped to deal with the prevalence of PTSD as there is only one psychiatrist for more than a population of two million. Moreover, there is also a deep under-lying social stigma attached to mental illnesses in Pakistan and a popular misconception is that they occur due to the possession of “Jin”, evil eyes or “Jadoo”.

Thus, in order to provide mental health assistance to students in Swat, we first need to acknowledge and address that PTSD is a real illness and then we need to eliminate the taboos and misbeliefs that are attached to it. Only then can we provide these children with the treatment they need and deserve in order to have a proper educational experience.

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