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Surviving the Crisis: Mental Health Challenges for Displaced Children in Burkina Faso

Mental Health Care in Rural Illinois: Bringing Hope to Counties in Need -  Tekedia

When armed men stormed Safi’s village in northern Burkina Faso, she hid in her home with her four children. The gunmen found them but spared their lives, leaving Safi to endure the guilt of surviving while her husband and other relatives were killed.

Safi, whose surname is withheld for security reasons, is among the 2 million people displaced by escalating violence between Islamic extremists and security forces in Burkina Faso. About 60% of the displaced are children, many of whom are traumatized, yet mental health services are scarce, and children are often overlooked for treatment.

“People often think that the children have seen nothing, nothing has happened to them, it’s fine,” said Rudy Lukamba, the health coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Burkina Faso. He oversees a program to identify and treat traumatized children, often relying on mothers to spot signs in children as young as 3 or 4. The chances of successful treatment are higher when children have a parental figure in their lives, he added.

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Mass killings of villagers have become common in northern Burkina Faso as fighters linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida clash with the army and volunteer forces, sometimes targeting villages suspected of collaborating with the enemy. Since the conflict began a decade ago, over 20,000 people have been killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

Mental health services in Burkina Faso are typically reserved for severe cases. A 2023 U.N. survey found only 103 mental health professionals in the country of over 20 million, including 11 psychiatrists. Community-based mental health services by social workers are expanding, supported by a small team of U.N. psychologists. Additionally, families increasingly turn to traditional medicine practitioners for help with traumatized children.

However, the need for mental health services is immense. The U.N. reported that surveys by it and its partners indicate that 10 out of 11 people affected by the conflict show signs of trauma.

With no money and fearing another attack, Safi fled on foot with seven children, including her own, across the arid plains to seek safety. They eventually settled in Ouahigouya, the capital of Yatenga province, where they sought help.

There, Safi learned about the effects of post-traumatic stress on children. Her children had nightmares and struggled to sleep. During the day, they avoided playing with other children. Through the ICRC, Safi connected with a health worker who provided home visits and used art therapy, encouraging the children to draw their fears and discuss them.

Traditional medicine practitioners also assist traumatized children. One practitioner, Rasmane Rouamba, treats about five children a month, tailoring his approach based on the trauma experienced.

Children in Burkina Faso have also lost access to education and basic healthcare in conflict-affected areas. The U.N. children’s agency reported that nearly 850,000 children are deprived of education due to school closures. Additionally, the closure of hundreds of health facilities has left 3.6 million people without access to care.

Burkina Faso’s government has struggled to improve security. The country’s military leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, seized power in 2022 amid public frustration over deadly attacks. He is expected to remain in office for another five years, delaying the promised democratic transition. About half of Burkina Faso’s territory remains outside government control, civic freedoms have been restricted, and journalists have been expelled. The country has distanced itself from regional and Western nations that disagree with its approach, severing military ties with former colonial ruler France and turning to Russia for security support.

Safi, now adrift with her children, plans to stay in her new community for now. She has no money or other place to go. “There’s a perfect harmony in the community, and they have become like family,” she said.

Safi's story is a poignant reflection of the broader crisis engulfing Burkina Faso. The violence has displaced millions, severing them from their homes, their livelihoods, and their sense of security. The burden falls heavily on children, who face trauma without adequate mental health support. While initiatives by organizations like the ICRC and traditional healers offer some relief, the scale of the need is overwhelming.

The government's struggle to maintain control and improve security exacerbates the situation. With half of the country outside government control and basic services like education and healthcare severely disrupted, the prospects for a swift resolution seem distant. Burkina Faso's pivot towards non-traditional allies like Russia and its internal political turmoil further complicate efforts to stabilize the region.

For now, Safi and countless others must navigate their new realities, relying on the resilience of communities and limited aid to rebuild their lives. Despite the profound challenges, stories like Safi's also highlight the strength of human bonds and the hope that, even in the darkest times, communities can come together to support one another.