UNICEF Supports Psycho-Social Relief in Child-Friendly Safe Spaces
By Becca Journey
NEW YORK – Worldwide, an estimated 18 million children are currently displaced by armed conflict and natural disasters. As soon as immediate health and safety concerns have been attended to, emergency situations require a special level of care for emotionally distressed children.
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Children's overall feelings of well-being are intimately tied to their sense of normalcy and routine. Through child-friendly safe spaces in crisis and post-crisis situations, UNICEF provides educational equipment and materials to re-establish learning and recreational activities, as well as psychosocial support teams of professionals to help children cope.
This year in the Gaza Strip, for example, UNICEF-supported psychosocial programmes will reach tens of thousands of children who experienced more than three weeks of intensive bombardment and military operations last December and January. The conflict left many children with acute levels of stress, fear and anxiety.
Children who witness armed conflict or are displaced by natural disasters often develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This disorder affects the entire body, as symptoms manifest not only psychologically but physically and neurologically as well.
Signs of PTSD may include impaired concentration, anti-social behaviour and avoidance of places that trigger painful memories. Children may also have vivid and recurrent nightmares in which they re-experience distressing scenarios.
To help address such symptoms, child-friendly safe spaces provide opportunities to bundle aid services in a supportive environment that is comfortable for children.
‘A very lively and friendly place’
UNICEF’s Senior Advisor for Child Protection in Emergencies, Bo Viktor Nylund, recalled a recent visit to a UNICEF-supported safe space in the Darfur region of Sudan.
As children played together in the centre, he said, ”there was a health worker who came in and provided polio immunization, because it's a place where a lot of children gather, and some of these services can be done there because those are children that don't necessarily go to school.
“So it's a very lively and friendly place with children running around and a lot of happiness, in a way, under very difficult circumstances,” added Mr. Nylund.
Benefits of Art Therapy
Art activities are also frequently utilized in UNICEF-supported safe spaces. Art therapy is a developmentally appropriate way to help children overcome psychological wounds and restore a sense of normalcy in chaotic situations.
Experts say that creative activity increases brain levels of serotonin, a hormone associated with feelings of well-being.
“Art gives children a sense of control,” explained art therapist Deborah Farber. Children are remarkably resilient, she noted, adding that “most can get over post-traumatic stress disorder if they have a very good support system – parents, caretakers – and if they have good coping skills.”
Following the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck in December 2004, UNICEF Thailand provided displaced children with psychosocial aid that often took the form of art therapy, storytelling and games.
Counsellors at a school in Thailand’s Ranong province encouraged students to create ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings of their destroyed village. Through their coloured pencils and paints, children began to confront the enormity of distress and displacement, and in doing so, initiated the healing process.
This type of ‘psychological first-aid’ is a crucial first step in therapeutic interventions. Long-term supportive networks of parents, caretakers and teachers are equally instrumental in rebuilding children’s lives.