Art therapy can help reducing psychological problems in Syrian refugee children

This is a pilot study with a very specific group, Syrian refugee children living in Turkey, so we can’t use this study to generalize. Still this study shows that group art therapy has promise in reducing a wide range of psychological symptoms commonly experienced by refugee children. Do note also that this was measured twice not long after the group art therapy, so the study also doesn’t tell us much about the long term effects.

From the press release:

Numerous studies have shown that refugee children are at high risk of a broad range of psychological problems including depression, behavioural problems, aggression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With almost 1.5 million refugee children from Syria currently living in Turkey, effective programmes to improve their mental health are sorely needed.

This study assessed whether group art therapy could reduce psychological symptoms in 64 Syrian refugee children (aged 7-12) who were living in Istanbul. Arabic speaking interviewers used standard questionnaires and scales to assess the children’s traumatic experiences and to measure levels of depression, PTSD, and anxiety — both before and one week after — the five-day art therapy programme. The therapy used the Skills for Psychological Recovery programme to help children improve their problem solving skills, express and manage their feelings, and increase their social engagement and self-esteem through, art, dancing, and music.

At the start of the study, over half the children (35) were deemed at high risk of developing PTSD, around a quarter (14) already had PTSD symptoms, about a fifth (10) showed severe levels of depression and state (current) anxiety symptoms (6), and almost a third (13) had severe levels of trait anxiety symptoms (general tendency to be anxious; table 3).

One week after the programme, children reported significant improvements in trauma, depression, and trait-anxiety symptoms. No significant improvement was noted in state anxiety symptoms (table 4 and figure 1).

This study draws attention to the psychological impact of the refugee crisis on Syrian children and presents a potentially effective therapy. However, the authors caution that because of the limited number of participants and lack of control group, larger studies will be needed before definitive conclusions can be made about the therapy’s effect on reducing psychological symptoms in refugee children.

Abstract of the study:

This study first examined the prevalence of psychological symptoms among Syrian refugee children (N = 64) and assessed the effect of an art therapy intervention on post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety symptoms. The Stressful Life Events (SLE) Questionnaire was used to measure stressful and traumatic experiences. The main outcome measures were UCLA Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Parent version, Child Depression Inventory and State-Trait Anxiety Scale. After the baseline assessment, a five-day art therapy intervention, which is based on Skills for Psychological Recovery, was implemented. Findings of the study indicated that 60.3% (N = 35) of Syrian children who participated had high risk to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) according to the SLE scale. The 23.4% of the children had PTSD symptoms while the 17.6% showed severe depression symptoms. Moreover, the 14.4% of the children showed severe levels of state anxiety symptoms and the 31.1% showed severe levels of trait anxiety symptoms. Findings of the study indicated that trauma, depression and trait anxiety symptoms of children were significantly reduced at the post-assessment. However, for state anxiety scores, significant differences between pre- and post-assessments did not appear. Therefore, it could be said that art therapy may be an effective method to reduce post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and trait anxiety symptoms among refugee children.

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