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Story | Research
3 October 2019

QF highlights the ‘toxic stress’ of Rohingya children


17 per cent of children in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps may have mental health issues, according to Save The Children

Almost one-fifth of displaced Rohingya children in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps are showing significant signs of mental health problems, a Save The Children expert has revealed at the opening of an exhibition curated by Qatar Foundation initiative the World Innovation Summit for Health.

Aladin Borja, a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Technical Advisor with the UK non-profit organization’s Rohingya Response team, said that even minor and moderate mental health issues among children now living in the Bangladesh camps after fleeing violence in Myanmar are “a cause for concern”.

QF gives us greater incentive to continue our mission to save Rohingya children and support them in maintaining their mental health.

Aladin Borja

He highlighted the issue at the launch of an exhibition called ‘Artistic Dimensions Towards a Healthier World’, which is being held at Doha arts venue the Fire Station and includes displays of drawings produced by Rohingya children, as part of a Save The Children art therapy initiative.

“Since August 2017, we have conducted a field study and found that 17 per cent of refugee children at Cox’s Bazar have mental health problems including depression, panic attacks, anxiety, sleep disorders, and severe mental disorders,” said Borja.

“Most of these problems are due to ‘toxic stress’, which is the result of persistent daily stress. These refugee children have faced many difficult situations, such as seeing one of their family killed or raped, family breakups, and displacement, as well as living in very difficult conditions in the refugee camps.”

Speaking about the display of Rohingya children’s art at the exhibition, and the contribution that Qatar Foundation and the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) are making to spotlighting the mental health problems these children face, Borja said: “What Qatar Foundation enables in this regard is very important for us.

“By providing a platform like WISH from which we can share our experiences not only with healthcare policy-makers and providers from around the world, but also with all members of society, QF gives us greater incentive to continue our mission to save Rohingya children and support them in maintaining their mental health.

Mental health expert Aladin Borja says art is a way for Rohingya children to express their emotions.

The drawings by Rohingya children living in refugee camps in Bangladesh are part of an exhibition exploring the relationship between art and health.

“We do this through communicating directly with these children, enhancing the interaction between them and their families with the aim of restoring the social fabric of their community which has been destroyed.”

A UNICEF report published in September said that more than 29 million babies were born in conflict zones in 2018; and that armed violence in countries including Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen meant that, last year, one in five babies born globally spent the first days of their lives in communities riven by chaos and conflict.

The report stated: “When young children experience prolonged or repeated adverse or traumatic events, the brain’s stress management system is activated without relief, causing ‘toxic stress’. Over time, stress chemicals break down existing neural connections and inhibit new ones from forming, leading to lasting consequences for children’s learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.”

Borja said: “The program we provide to children aims to prevent mental health problems through interactive activities and motivating children to express themselves through the arts, and through seminars and workshops.

“We also encourage communities to share their feelings through working groups. For complicated and severe psychological conditions, we refer them to doctors and specialist counselors, according to the specifics of each case.”

The collaboration between WISH and Save The Children reflects how QF and its entities and initiatives build partnerships with other non-profit organizations – and it enabled Borja to cite an example which demonstrates how addressing refugee children’s mental health issues brings fresh hope to them and their families.

The most important aspect of improving a child’s mental health is making them feel secure.

Aladin Borja

“Abat, an 11-year-old refugee Rohingya child, was forcibly removed from his family during his displacement to Bangladesh,” he said. “Through our tracing and reunification activities, we were able to bring him and his family back together.

“Now he is feeling secure. And the most important aspect of improving a child’s mental health is making them feel secure.”

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