The April 14 kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls has sparked international outrage as concerns about the girls’ fate grow more dire. A popular Facebook and Twitter hashtag has been circulating for about a week, demanding that the kidnappers “bring back our girls.” The kidnappers have reportedly threatened to sell the girls into sexual slavery, rape them, or kill them if their demands to release prisoners aren’t met.
The New York Times reports that Chibok, the town where most of the girls’ parents live, is overwhelmed by grief, pain, and anxiety. Although the kidnapping has garnered significant media attention, such violence occurs nearly every day in war-torn regions of the planet. The mental health effects of such ongoing insecurity can be dramatic and tragic.
Mental Health Challenges
People exposed to chronic violence—even those who are not directly victimized by the violence—are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health challenges. Anxiety and depression are common in environments rife with violence and uncertainty.
Additionally, people exposed to serious trauma can experience posttraumatic stress, which leads to flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety, trouble regulating emotions, and avoidant behaviors. In areas ravaged by war, poverty, and violence, mental health care may be of poor quality or completely nonexistent, increasing the likelihood of worsening symptoms over time.
Physical Health Challenges
Chronic stress undermines immunity, making people more susceptible to infectious illnesses. Violence can also lead to stress and anxiety, both of which are closely correlated with cardiovascular conditions. There’s some evidence that mental health difficulties may also lead to cancer, diabetes, obesity, and numerous other health conditions. People living in war-torn areas are already vulnerable to illness and disease because of poor access to health care, poverty, and ongoing exposure to dangerous chemicals or infectious agents. Trauma only compounds the effects of these risk factors.
Effects on Relationships
Trauma can undermine even the closest of relationships. Some people who experience trauma may attempt to avoid situations that remind them of the trauma, and this can mean changing jobs, moving to a less desirable location, or even seeking a divorce. The ongoing stress of mass violence undermines relationships, and close relationships—such as marriages and parent-child relationships—typically suffer first. Unfortunately, these relationships help to protect against some of the consequences of chronic stress. When these relationships suffer, stress tends to get worse.
Mental health conditions caused by trauma can be transmitted to the next generation, even if that generation doesn’t directly experience trauma. Traumatized parents may inadvertently teach their children to behave as if they have been traumatized by modeling trauma-related behavior. There’s also some evidence that trauma can alter genetics. The ongoing stress trauma survivors experience won’t change genes themselves, but it can change the way genes express themselves. This altered gene expression can then be passed onto children, leading to trauma-induced genetic changes that cross generational barriers.
International aid organizations are increasingly recognizing the catastrophic effects of trauma. Early mental health interventions may help reduce the symptoms, but when the source of the trauma is ongoing—as is the case with the parents of the kidnapped Nigerian children—it’s difficult to mitigate trauma’s effects.
- De Jong, K. (n.d.). Psychosocial and mental health interventions in areas of mass violence [PDF]. Medecins Sans Frontieres.
- Does the impact of psychological trauma cross generations? (2010, September 8). Retrieved from http://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/research-and-journals/does-the-impact-of-psychological-trauma-cross-generations
- Nossiter, A. (2014, May 11). In town of missing girls, sorrow but little progress. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/world/africa/in-town-of-missing-girls-sorrow-but-little-progress.html?_r=0
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