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Syria: Millions of displaced suffering from 'PTSD crisis'

New report reveals the extent of post-traumatic stress disorder on Syria's population as a result of the ten-year conflict
A man rides a bicycle with his child, around damaged buildings in Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria (Reuters)

A new report published today by Syria Relief, one of the world’s leading Syria-focused NGOs, has revealed the extent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health issues on internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. 

According to the NGO, research shows that 99 percent of IDPs in northwest Syria's Idlib province, the opposition's last stronghold, have symptoms of PTSD.

The UN estimates that 40 percent of Idlib's population of three million are IDPs that have been displaced over the course of Syria's ten-year conflict.

The research also shows that 74 percent of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon also have PTSD symptoms, in what the organisation has called "the Syrian PTSD crisis". 

The report also analyses the mental health support available to sufferers. According to the research, refugees in Turkey have better access to mental health services, with 64 percent of people saying they have some support available to them. 

'Even after a year and a half, we are still scared. Even hearing the word ‘air strike’ gets people in this IDP camp scared'

- Ahmed, 31

This is in stark contrast to refugees residing in Lebanon, where only 15 percent believe that there is some mental health support available to them, and IDPs in Idlib, where only one percent of people said they can find support. 

Some of the symptoms experienced by those surveyed include feeling like the event was happening again, avoiding people or activities that remind you of the event, intense physical or emotional distress, persistent negative emotional state, and reckless or self-destructive behaviour, amongst others. 

One of the people surveyed by the organisation, Ahmed, a 31-year-old who was displaced from his home in southern Idlib, said that he is frightened even hearing the sound of a door closing after a barrel bomb was dropped by Syrian government forces near his shop.

“I witnessed more than 31 air strikes which launched 400 rockets... I lost my knee because of this. I still cannot walk... Even after a year and a half, we are still scared. Even hearing the word ‘air strike’ gets people in this IDP camp scared,” he said. 

Ahmed added that any loud noises, such as a car driving by in the area, terrifies people, yet there is no psychological help on offer to them.

Shamash, who was forced to leave Aleppo due to heavy bombing, said living in a tent in Lebanon has made her severely depressed. 

“In this camp, we need mental health support desperately. We are all depressed. We have no jobs, nothing to do... we are never safe, we are constantly on guard... You cannot compare living in a tent to living in a house, we live like animals here.”

syrian refugee
Conditions in IDP camps have worsened the mental health strain among many people (AFP)

Lebanon is home to around 879,000 registered Syrian refugees, making it the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

According to the survey conducted by Syria Relief, the support offered to refugees in Lebanon has been minimal due to the economic crisis in the country, which has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the Beirut port blast in August 2020. 

The survey found that despite the efforts of NGOs, there remains a huge gap to fill with regards to mental health services for people residing in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. 

Syria Relief spoke to 721 refugees in the three countries. Charles Lawley, the author of the report, said the damage from the conflict has been widespread, and is not restricted to buildings and destroyed cities.

“After the guns and bombs have fallen silent and the buildings are repaired, there is still lasting damage from conflict that rarely gets adequately rehabilitated as it is not visible - the mental scars of war in the minds of the people who have endured the brutal fighting,” he said in a statement

Lawley said the results of the survey were far worse than the NGO had feared. 

“This conflict has touched every Syrian in some way. Our fear is that this will be the legacy of the conflict, when the bombs and guns eventually fall silent. For Syrian people, the mental scars will be bleeding long after the physical ones have healed,” he added. 

syria war mental health
Many of those surveyed by the organisation said there was little to no mental health support available to them (Reuters)

The UK-based charity has called for greater support for IDPs and refugees, noting that many of the people surveyed in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon showed PTSD symptoms but said they had little to no support available to them.

The charity has called for donor governments and international bodies to increase their funding for mental health projects and for all warring parties in the conflict, and their external allies, to cease violence as the war has proven to be the root cause of the PTSD crisis. 

One of the report’s key demands is also for the UK government to reverse its plans to cut the aid budget, and instead focus more funding on providing mental health provisions for victims most in need. 

Syria’s civil war started nearly a decade ago and has since uprooted millions of people, with around 6.6 million refugees who have fled the country and a further 6.1 million who are internally displaced. 

No accurate figures exist for the number of those who have been killed during the war, but as of 2018, there were at least half a million fatalities.