• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Wednesday 22nd October, 2014

Resilience-building intervention helps young people exposed to war

strong>You are growing up in a war zone where a ceasefire has just been declared. How might prevention science help you to avoid the potential for long-term harm caused by exposure to armed conflict and stress?According to psychologists, who have tested a school-based preventive intervention with teenagers living in southern Israel, the answer is encouraging. Working with school students after sustained rocket and mortar attacks during the 2008 Israeli offensive in Gaza, they succeeded in improving young people’s support networks and their sense of self-efficacy – important contributors to psychological resilience in the wake of traumatic events.Sadly there is a fast-growing research literature from trouble spots around the world on how best to support children’s mental health in the aftermath of war and other political violence. Evidence gathered in Bosnia, Nepal and Indonesia as well as from refugees from the world’s many conflict zones has contributed to an understanding of consequences that can include aggression, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.Once the fighting stopsExisting studies suggest that the time when fighting stops and youth are expected to return to their schools and other “routine” activities is a sensitive, high-risk period for their psychological rehabilitation as they start to interpret their experiences of war and attempt to adjust.In Israel, with its prolonged history of conflict, a number of programs have been devised with the aim of helping children and young people to avoid long-term psychiatric problems, including a universal intervention in elementary schools. However, the resilience-building program tested in secondary schools in the South Israeli city of Ashkelon was implemented, uniquely, just one week after an enforceable ceasefire had been declared. During the three weeks of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” offensive in Gaza, Ashkelon came under an intense rocket and mortar bombardment, giving the population had just 15 seconds to reach cover following an air raid warning. When a ceasefire was declared on January 18th 2009, children in the city returned to “normal” life almost immediately, including regular school.To test their six-week program, the researchers worked with six classes of 16 and 17-year olds in two schools. Three classes were randomly assigned to take part in the intervention and three formed a waiting-list control group who pursued a course on general issues concerning adolescence until the six weeks were over. In all, there were 94 students in the intervention group and 85 in the control group.The experimental program was delivered as a training workshop bringing together students, their class teachers and school counselors for three five-hour seminars facilitated by clinical psychologists. Each of these was followed by classroom activities taking place twice a week. The focal topics for the course were mobilizing social support and increasing self-efficacy. The activities devised for students to pursue this included discussions, reading poems and stories, watching video clips of relevant songs and creating a class map of the different sources of support available to them.Questionnaire-based measurements at the end of the program found that young people in the intervention group showed an increased ability to mobilize support, while the control group showed a significant decrease. This reinforced the view that without preventive action, young people might find the social support they felt during the crisis, when they shared bomb shelters with families and neighbors, starting to dissipate rapidly. The intervention group also experienced increases in self-efficacy and decreases in psychological distress, while measurements among the control students moved in the opposite direction. This, too, appeared to underline the importance of implementing the prevention program soon after a ceasefire was declared.Less psychological distressThe researchers properly insist that their model requires further testing to see if it can be generalized to other groups of young people affected by political violence and war. They also emphasize that it cannot be considered an alternative to the kind of intensive, individual psychotherapy or treatment that may benefit young people who have been severely traumatized by war. It would also be valuable to learn from further research whether the positive effects from this type of school-based intervention prove durable. The study’s central point about the benefits of early intervention and support for school students during the “return to normality” following a ceasefire appears well founded. Yet the thought remains that there are conflict zones, on Israel’s borders and beyond, where the destruction war inflicts on children, families, homes and schools makes thoughts of normality a still-distant dream.*********Reference:Slone, M., Shoshani, A., & Lobel, T. (2013). Helping Youth Immediately Following War Exposure: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a School-Based Intervention Program. Journal of Primary Prevention, 34, 293-307. doi 10.1007/s10935-013-0314-3.

Back to Archives