300 Schoolgirls and the Shock of Community Violence

Bring back our girls logoThe 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.

Transgenerational Trauma

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.


  1. De Jong, K. (n.d.). Psychosocial and mental health interventions in areas of mass violence [PDF]. Medecins Sans Frontieres.
  2. 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
  3. 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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  • Kale


    May 15th, 2014 at 1:06 PM

    Could there have been no warning that this was going to happen at some point in time? I think that these countries where something like this poses a seriious threat, as it obviously does in Nigeria then there should have been far more protection for these school girls than that which we have witnessed.

    The other thing about all of this that really upsets me is the hesitation on everyone’s part to do something about it I think all because there is this fear of getting involved in another long and drawn out conflict. But these are children. If anything is worth getting involved for, shouldn’t this be it?

  • sadie


    May 16th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    When I think about the fact that this could be any of our daughters who is going through this, it makes me sick to my stomach. Can you imagine the horrors that in all likelihood these girls have had to endure? I don’t want to even think about it but you know that many of them have probably been raped, forced to convert, who knows what. And their parents can do nothing because they don’t even know where to begin to look for them. It is isick that young girls are being used as ransom for beliefs like this. I don’t think that you will find anyone, annyone sane it least, who would think that this is the way to advance your cause.

  • Benjamin


    May 16th, 2014 at 1:56 PM

    I am very sad to even think this way but these girls haven’t been rescued because they are not that much of a priority in thsi part of the world. Very sad but very true.

  • Calliegh


    May 17th, 2014 at 5:05 PM

    This is going to wind up hurting many people mostly because you know that the parents, the teachers and the school leaders have to feel some responsibility for what happened and have to wonder if there was anything that they could have done sooner to save these girls. Maybe there was and maybe there wasn’t but this is going to go far beyond the girls themselves.

  • johanna


    May 22nd, 2014 at 4:40 AM

    I sincerely hope and pray that we find these girls safe and having been cared fro in a decent and humane manner. It is already going to be so difficult for them to feel safe in this world, and they are likely going to have a difficult time re-integrating into society. I think that when something like this happens to you then it changes you, changes who you are and how you then look at others. This could lead to a great deal of sadness as families try their best to reconnect and find that perhaps what they once had with each other is now gone. I wish that this would have been reported sooner, maybe then the world could have stepped in and done something more quickly. As it stands now, the fate of these girls is very much in limbo and all we can do is pray for their dafe return.

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