Pakistani children, parents struggle with PTSD

PESHAWAR – Many parents lost children in the December 16 Army Public School (APS) massacre, but those whose children survived know that they are not the same.

Nasir-ud-Din Qureshi is among the group of parents who have a child suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the event. His 13-year-old son, Ahzaz Ali, was in the auditorium where most of the killing happened, Nasir told Central Asia Online.

"When someone hurriedly opens or closes the door at home, Ahzaz becomes frightened and thinks back to the slamming of doors by militants in the auditorium," he said. "When he hears a gunshot in the vicinity of our house, he is reminded of the assault rifle bursts by the attackers on the innocent students and teachers. He is in miserable condition."

"He is very insecure when I am not home," Nasir said. "He constantly asks his mother when I will return."

Deep effects of PTSD

Health providers are doing whatever they can to help those affected.

"Ahzaz's reaction is typical because he is a direct witness of the carnage and brutality shown by militants at APS," Dr. Mukhtair-ul-Haq Azimi, an assistant professor working in the Psychiatry Ward of Lady Reading Hospital, said.

Azimi has counselled patients suffering from PTSD for the past 15 years. The mental stress he has seen from the APS attack is unprecedented, he said.

"The impact of the APS tragedy is very severe and in fact devastating, affecting everyone, especially children and women," Azimi said.

Children have lost their sense of safety and security at schools and want to stay at home, University of Peshawar Psychology Department Chairwoman Dr. Irum Irshad said. Similarly, parents fear that what happened at APS could happen again at their children's schools, she said, adding that the worry is causing mental stress, depression, short tempers and sleeplessness.

If children don't receive proper treatment, flashbacks to the APS tragedy could damage their academic and personal lives, Irum said.

Helping those in need

Officials are doing what they can to help those in need. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government recently announced its plans to construct trauma centres and hold lectures for students on how to cope with PTSD. It also plans to set up toll-free helplines from 9am to 4pm and will assist callers needing medical help, Azimi said.

The provincial health department also constituted a technical committee that is building a long-term policy on treating PTSD. The committee's members are approaching religious scholars to provide spiritual support to the victims' relatives. It also plans to use the media to broadcast special programmes and songs to provide solace to those affected and to boost the nation's morale.

KP has a shortage of child psychiatrists, but foreign and Pakistani doctors from different parts of the country are coming to help train local doctors and treat patients. NGOs are also extending a helping hand; the Art of Living organisation has adapted a multi-path approach for bringing relief to the affected victims of the APS disaster.

"Our volunteers have been successful in helping victims cope with stress and trauma. They feel free of the burden of the disaster and smile once again," Dr. Tariq of The Art of Living said.

The organisation is providing counselling to those affected by the tragedy free of cost. Counselling became available January 29.

Courtesy: Central Asia Online