The newest issue of the journal Child Development presents two different studies addressing former child soldiers and their mental health, social adjustment, and overall well-being in the years after they fighting has stopped. The studies together show that wartime experience and post-war family and social environment both impact the mental health outcome of the children.
The first study followed 150 former child soldiers from Sierra Leone for two years after that country’s civil war ended. Researchers compared the age at which the children were abducted or conscripted into fighting, as well as the types of experiences they had during war, in relation to their post-war tendency for depression or aggressive behavior. They found that the age at which children started fighting (some as young as 7 years old) played a role in how depressed they were; the younger, the more severe the depression. For aggressive behavior, the severity of wartime experience was the greatest factor. All of the children reported witnessing severe violence, but those who had injured another person, killed another person, or been raped exhibited markedly more aggressive behavior in the years after the war.
The second study looked at 330 former child soldiers in Uganda to compare wartime experience, post-war community environment, and mental health. More than half reported having killed someone, more than one quarter had been raped, and a full 90% were still experiencing or witnessing violence in the communities they returned to. The children in this study exhibited high rates of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) and depression, with two thirds of the group suffering from emotional or behavioral problems. Researchers found that the remaining third—those children without serious lasting mental health issues—tended to be younger, and also returned to homes and communities with lower levels of violence and higher levels of emotional support, social acceptance, and socioeconomic stability.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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