Family violence, war, and natural disasters: A study of the effect of extreme stress on children's mental health in Sri Lanka
Background: The consequences of war violence and natural disasters on the mental health of children as well as on family dynamics remain poorly understood. Aim of the present investigation was to establish the prevalence and predictors of traumatic stress related to war, family violence and the recent Tsunami experience in children living in a region affected by a long-lasting violent conflict. In addition, the study looked at whether higher levels of war violence would be related to higher levels of violence within the family and whether this would result in higher rates of psychological problems in the affected children.
Methods: 296 Tamil school children in Sri Lanka's North-Eastern provinces were randomly selected for the survey. Diagnostic interviews were carried out by extensively trained local Master level counselors. PTSD symptoms were established by means of a validated Tamil version of the UCLA PTSD Index. Additionally, participants completed a detailed checklist of event types related to organized and family violence.
Results: 82.4% of the children had experienced at least one war-related event. 95.6% reported at least one aversive experience out of the family violence spectrum. The consequences are reflected in a 30.4% PTSD and a 19.6% Major Depression prevalence. Linear regression analyses showed that fathers' alcohol intake and previous exposure to war were significantly linked to the amount of maltreatment reported by the child. A clear dose-effect relationship between exposure to various stressful experiences and PTSD was found in the examined children.
Conclusion: Data argue for a relationship between war violence and violent behavior inflicted on children in their families. Both of these factors, together with the experience of the recent Tsunami, resulted as significant predictors of PTSD in children, thus highlighting the detrimental effect that the experience of cumulative stress can have on children's mental health.