Most psychologists agree that the first priority in helping children in war zones is to rebuild their communities, since healthy adults raise healthy children.

To have the most broad and long-lasting impact, psychologists are training and supporting indigenous helpers, leaders and parents to work with their children. That way, when the psychologists leave, communities have a way to keep themselves healthy.

Mental health professionals are working on several fronts to re-establish communities:

  • Rebuilding schools. Psychologist Barbara Smith, PhD, who manages the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) 28 overseas assistance programs, says education is her group's biggest mental health service. Not only does school keep kids on an appropriate developmental track, it keeps them out of the hands of militaries.

Also, says Smith: "With education, the parents are far more likely to stay involved with their children's lives." For example, in Guinea, the IRC had 80,000 refugee children in schools that were run and taught by other refugees.

  • Reuniting families. Putting children back with their families should be a top priority, experts agree. While it's easy to say that people need food, water and health care first, nongovernmental organizations and governments need to start tracing children as soon as possible, Smith asserts, because returning children to their families becomes harder with each passing day.

"The best thing you can do is ensure that the child is connected with an emotionally available, nurturing, caring adult," says Kathleen Kostelny, PhD.

  • Resettling children. For children who have served in the army, there are particular difficulties in resettlement. For example, a girl who has been sexually abused or a boy who fought could be considered "impure," meaning that their presence could bring famine or disease to the village.

What's the solution? It's certainly not explaining how these views are "wrong," psychologists say, since mental health is mediated by cultural beliefs.

"Without understanding their belief system, you aren't in a good position to know what intervention would work best," explains Mike Wessells, PhD, of Randolph-Macon College.

Instead, a psychologist should learn about the community's culture and talk with indigenous leaders to come up with a plan. One possibility: The community's cultural ceremonies, such as offering sacrifices or performing a purification ritual, could rectify the situation, allowing children back into communities and schools.

--D. SMITH

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