By James Palmer
BAGHDAD — About 70% of primary school students in a Baghdad neighborhood suffer symptoms of trauma-related stress such as bed-wetting or stuttering, according to a survey by the Iraqi Ministry of Health.
The survey of about 2,500 youngsters is the most comprehensive look at how the war is affecting Iraqi children, said Iraq's national mental health adviser and author of the study, Mohammed Al-Aboudi.
"The fighting is happening in the streets in front of our houses and schools," Al-Aboudi said. "This is very difficult for the children to adapt to."
The study is to be released next month. Al-Aboudi discussed the findings with USA TODAY.
Many Iraqi children have to pass dead bodies on the street as they walk to school in the morning, according to a separate report last week by the International Red Cross. Others have seen relatives killed or have been injured in mortar or bomb attacks.
"Some of these children are suffering one trauma after another, and it's severely damaging their development," said Said Al-Hashimi, a psychiatrist who teaches at Mustansiriya Medical School and runs a private clinic in west Baghdad. "We're not certain what will become of the next generation, even if there is peace one day," Al-Hashimi said.
The study was conducted last October in the Sha'ab district of northern Baghdad. The low- to middle-income neighborhood is inhabited by a mix of Shiites and Sunni Arabs. Al-Aboudi said he believes the sample was broadly representative of conditions throughout the capital.
In the study, schoolteachers were asked to determine whether randomly selected students showed any of 10 symptoms identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as signs of trauma. Other symptoms included voluntary muteness, declining performance in school or an increase in aggressive behavior.
The teachers received training from Iraqi psychologists on how to identify and help students cope with trauma-related stress, Al-Aboudi said.
The study "shows the impact of the violence and insecurity on the children and on children's mental health," said Naeema Al-Gasseer, the Iraqi representative of the WHO. "They have fear every day."
The Iraqi government is aware of the problem but largely unequipped to address it, said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman. "Until we have proper security in Baghdad, there's not much we can do to help these children," al-Dabbagh said in Washington.