NEWS

Violence puts children at risk of alienation

The violence being expressed more and more openly in everyday life represents a threat to children. It can make them fearful and insecure in the present and tarnish their future. But adults have relaxed their vigilance. «I’m afraid,» wrote a 13-year-old pupil, who was being bullied by a gang of older children, in a composition. «I don’t feel safe at my new school.» The teacher’s comment simply made a stereotyped reference to the textual content, saying «You haven’t analyzed the topic sufficiently.» «Alienation is even more tragic in schools,» Alexandra Roussou, a psychiatrist and president of the Society for the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents, told Kathimerini. «Violence from gangs of students has become a reality, even in primary schools. This information comes not only from what we see on television and read in the newspapers but also from the accounts of children in clinics.» At a congress on the subject, «The Child and Society in the Vortex of Psychological Trauma,» Roussou noted that psychological trauma can arise from natural phenomena, like earthquakes or floods, or social phenomena, such as war, torture, migration or accidents. But, in everyday life, it is due to the failure of interpersonal relations as expressed in various forms of abuse and violence in the family and at school. In Greece, the main causes of trauma are road accidents and violence in families. «The family is a source of salvation and destruction,» she says. Violence in the family can lead to the development of very serious psychiatric disorders, explains Roussou, and the younger the children, the more vulnerable they are. It can warp children’s emotions and their sense of themselves and the world around them. If the wounds are not healed, the emotional troubles will dog the children throughout their lifetimes. No psychological support given to the victims of road accidents How is psychological trauma treated? We often inadvertently ignore it, even though we know it exists, because a lot of children withdraw. They won’t speak; they’re frightened; they stay close to their parents and don’t cause trouble. So they don’t raise the alarm. But we can’t turn a blind eye when we see how many children and adults are psychologically traumatized by traffic accidents. I suppose an accident affects the whole family. Yes. Some people die in accidents, while others come face to face with death but can’t do anything about it, because they are trapped. There is no accident, large or small, which does not cause some kind of trauma. You’re going along smoothly and you suddenly encounter death. Road accidents are a major cause of mental trauma. It is tragic negligence on the part of our society that we do not offer psychological support to road accident victims. What are the consequences for them and for society? If help is not provided, the long-term consequences are very serious. In general, those who have suffered post-traumatic stress after any violent event have twice the rate of emotional disturbances and depression, and three times the rate of general health problems – hormonal, gynecological, cardiological, dermatological and gastrointestinal problems. Studies in the USA have shown that affected individuals suffer from other problems as well. Pregnancy in adolescence is 3 percent higher; the chances of marital problems (including divorce) rises by 60 percent; and accidents at school are 40 percent more likely for such individuals. They are 150 percent less likely to find work. Post-traumatic stress can lead to substance abuse, alcoholism, violence and risky behavior, such as joining gangs. What does therapy aim to do? Therapy does not try to remove the problem. Whatever has happened, happened and it won’t change. We intervene to help overcome the trauma, which humans are able to do. You can see greatness in abused children who forgive their parents, leave the trauma behind them and move on. Trauma is suffered by otherwise basically healthy individuals, which is why it is a psychiatric illness that can be cured. Painful TV scenes affect behavior What do you mean by violence in the family – shouting, beatings and abuse? Violence in the family can take the form of child abuse by adults – physical abuse, neglect or sexual abuse. But there are also cases of being a witness to violence, watching your father beat your mother or brother, for example. And that has a very high risk factor. Trauma has certain characteristics: It makes you feel that your life or someone else’s life is in danger. Lives are at risk in families, that’s a fact. But the younger you are, the greater the danger seems to you. The other characteristic of trauma is that you feel trapped; you can’t leave. If you are young and they beat you, where can you go? You have to remain there. This is why, when the trauma is very serious, starts very young and is continuous, it creates a multiple identity disturbance, an extreme form of trauma, because you have to take refuge somewhere. You can’t leave home, so you disconnect from what’s happening and start to imagine that they’re are not abusing you but some other child. So you can live with those people. And when the abuse is great, the imagination gets to work, and one person might develop six to eight different personalities. It is a marvelous natural survival mechanism, which distances the consciousness from what is unbearable and tries to protect a small part that isn’t suffering. But that part, from which so many other parts have been detached, is poor and helpless. So there is nothing worse than to be in a family in which there is violence, which can cause various forms of psychiatric disturbance: psychotraumatic disturbance, depression, delinquency, alcoholism, substance abuse, the lot. Does domestic violence give rise to child and adolescent gangs? A study done in America of prisoners serving long sentences showed that 80 percent of them had suffered abuse as children. I believe the structure of society in Greece is changing, and we are starting to see the evils we have seen in other countries. This is not transference; we don’t imitate violence. The conditions of life are changing. There is alienation, loneliness, unemployment, high-pressure urban life, divorce, and the mass media which imposes a certain lifestyle, a departure from tradition. All those things which make up tradition give life meaning. Have teachers become aware of violence in schools? They are not aware of children’s learning difficulties and disturbances. They don’t know whether children are dyslexic. They don’t know about trauma and it’s not their business. Schools are often completely inaccessible; the alienation is tragic. I was invited to a school in Zografou. I was struck by the bareness of the classrooms. There was nothing personal to remind children that this was their place. That school is used by three shifts of pupils – morning, afternoon and night. To whom does that classroom belong? What is your opinion of the influence of television? Numerous studies have shown that violent acts by children and adolescents are directly proportionate to the number of hours they watch television and the violent incidents they see on television. We saw that a few years ago with the major earthquake. In Ano Liosia, 80 percent of the houses were destroyed, while in Dafni the most that got broken was a coffee cup. Three months later, children in Ano Liosia and in Dafni had the same levels of post-traumatic stress because we all saw the collapse of the Ricomex Factory [which trapped people in the wreckage and caused many deaths] on television. That’s how violence does damage. Children have nightmares. Then they may identify with the aggressor and go out beating and killing. This is why we are organizing a meeting in the next two months on violence in schools, because we can’t turn a blind eye.