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Orphans require more mental health services

A recent Duke study identified a need for additional support and mental health services among orphans and abandoned children.

Of the orphaned and abandoned children from five culturally distinct countries surveyed, 98 percent reported experiencing trauma beyond the loss of their parents, including physical and sexual abuse, disasters and accidents. These children were more likely to experience further potentially traumatic events and demonstrate a need for additional protection, care and psychological services.

The study is one of the first to examine the relationship between traumatic events and orphaned and abandoned children over a multiyear period in developing countries, said lead researcher Kathryn Whetten, director of the Center for Health Policy at the Global Health Institute.

The study, which was published March 25 by the Journal of Traumatic Stress, focused on orphans from Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Tanzania. Researchers used data consisting of a sample of more than 1,200 orphans or abandoned children under age 15 as well as a control group of 272 non-orphaned or abandoned children.

“What these results show is that there is a real need—in addition to [basic needs]—to be able to identify when kids are vulnerable,” Whetten said.

According to the study, orphans need emotional support in order to develop into healthy adults. Early measures designed to give children the ability to cope with stress and hardships can potentially reduce the number of traumatic events the children will face.

Although many programs target girls in specific, the research indicated that males can be just as affected as females, meaning that programs that cater to both genders are necessary to ensure proper development.

The research is a part of the Positive Outcomes for Orphans study, a four year effort at Duke funded by the National Institutes of Health. More than 143 million children have lost a parent and millions more been abandoned by both, according to a 2004 study by UNICEF, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the United States Agency for International Development.

“No information is really out there on the effects of different programs and what really needs to be done for these children,” said Jan Ostermann, co-author of the study and associate research professor at the Center for Health Policy.

Whetten said at least 10 percent of the $43 billion allotted to the second five-year installment of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief­—which serves to combat HIV and AIDS—is spent on orphans and vulnerable children. She added that the money should be spent on programs that support children’s emotional health in addition to programs covering their basic needs.

“[Children] are being so affected by the traumatic events... that it affects their daily living,” Whetten said. “That is going to impede their ability to stay in school, perform well in school... and the way they are going to interact with [others].”

Rachel Whetten, co-author of the study and senior program coordinator at the Center for Health Policy, said she hopes these recent findings will spur countries to restructure and strengthen the programs they already have in place in order to address the mental health needs of orphans.

“[We hope] over time that [program coordinators] will realize that orphans need much, much more than just food and shelter,” Whetten said.

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