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War trauma: Healing broken children with video games?

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War trauma is no game – but for the broken children of Ukraine, or traumatised Syrian refugees in Lebanon, healing could begin with a control pad, screen, and specialist video game designed to help them cope. Is this an effective way to handle children’s mental health?

From bloody war zones, broken families and horrific scenes of violence, it’s fair to say that the effects (on adults or children) would be dire. Treating war-related trauma on the youngsters, perhaps the ones whose brains and personalities haven’t fully developed, is a challenge of its own nature.

There’s been a rise in the number of video games designed specifically for aiding a traumatised mind, which is said to gently and carefully address certain conditions, offer CBT, and even address the effects of young person’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

“Turning the tide” for traumatised children

Clinical psychologist Dr Solfrid Raknes developed an app-based video game based on a clinically proven framework – aimed at helping Syrian refugees recover from war trauma. 

Dr Raknes’ unique framework is “turning the tide for child refugees’ mental health”, and after working successfully with aid agencies in Syria, her game Attensi is using funding from Innovation Norway to bring the technology to the millions of children affected by war in Ukraine.

Speaking to Health Tech World, she said: “Many of the refugees have seen sights no child should ever witness – people killed and injured, homes destroyed, schools attacked and have had to experience life as a fugitive from the only place they have ever known. 

As adolescents are extremely impressionable at this stage of life, experiencing such a hostile and challenging environment has the potential to dramatically warp their logic and reasoning. The long-term effects of the trauma experienced can cause a wide range of health problems, both mentally and physically.

Healing through game tech

She added: “Over 5 million children have been affected already by the Ukraine conflict, which escalated quickly and turned their world upside down. 

“This technology is designed to help them process what they have experienced, give them courage and rebuild their lives.

“By playing through scenarios in this game they can dare to speak, express their opinions, deal with bad memories and traumatic experiences. Adolescents can learn what it takes to contribute their ideas and take part not just in the game, but in real life.”

Social aid workers will invite affected children to come and work through the app on portable devices like iPads, or signpost to those with devices that the app freely is available to download.

Video games for trauma – the data 

A recent study of over 1,200 Syrian youngsters in Lebanon found that the PSS staff who implemented the program evaluated it as a much-needed intervention with high impact, and relevant for all adolescents. 

Anxiety and depression symptoms significantly decreased in 75% of the adolescents who completed the program, and wellbeing increased significantly in 56% of them. Low drop-out rates (5%) and active dissemination of the app among adolescents were also signs of success. 

Dr Raknes added: “The game is made to support the typical challenges adolescents are struggling with across economic divides, including young Syrians in Lebanon and young people in Norway. 

“Some of the scenarios do address what people might face when living in a country affected by war, which are relevant for youth who have friends struggling with trauma, or who struggle with trauma themselves. 

She added: “The primary aim of the game, however, is to highlight to adolescents healthy and unhealthy ways of thinking and coping with challenges so that they are better able to deal with problems both in their own lives, and to support friends who are struggling.”

PTSD and video games 

Although this app is primarily set up for prevention of mental health disorders and strengthening mental health for all, we have found that it has a particularly high impact on adolescents who have experienced trauma.

She continued: “Learning the basic cognitive behavioural principles, such as identifying feelings and thoughts, and how emotional reactions can be connected to a traumatic event, can be helpful tools for youth suffering from PTSD, as well as for other adolescents. 

“Most people have to deal with some bad memories, so the teachings are helpful to all.”

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