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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Project offers long-term psychosocial support for tsunami-affected Malaysian children

© UNICEF Malaysia/2006/Nettleton
Tsunami survivor Nur Alia Ismail, 10, plays on a friend's porch in Langkawi, Malaysia.

By Steve Nettleton

LANGKAWI, Malaysia, December 2006 – Nightmares of giant waves haunt Nur Alia Ismail less often than they did before. On a Sunday afternoon nearly two years after the tsunami swept through her beachside neighbourhood, she showed no fear as she played just metres from the sea.

Nur Alia, 10, was alone at home when the tsunami struck. She survived only by clinging to a pole. More than seven months of counselling and medication seemed to put her on the road to recovery. But less than a year after the disaster she suffered a relapse, complaining that she often dreamed “the waves are coming.”

After receiving further counselling and treatment, Nur Alia says the dreams have faded. “This year has been a bit more fun,” she noted.

Long-term support

Even though Malaysia did not suffer the widespread devastation that the tsunami brought to other nations, it left deep emotional scars on many children like Nur Alia. And communities with no capacity to provide psychological care for them have been overwhelmed.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, Malaysia’s HELP University College, with support from UNICEF and the Ministry of Health, began training community health workers and building a local support network to treat victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems.

The project aims to ensure that children and their families have long-term counselling and psychotherapy. As a result, 1,000 children and their families now have direct access to activities that promote emotional and mental health – a crucial service to help children who experience relapses.

Nur Alia, for example. is still struggling with some emotional problems.

“She’s doing a lot better in school, but she sometimes gets scared,” said her mother. “She’s changed schools since the tsunami, and her new school is between two hills. So when the weather is bad, she’s afraid there will be an earthquake or a landslide and doesn’t want to go to school.”

Mental health care capacity

To be better prepared for future emergencies, HELP University College is also setting up a national child trauma response team, made up of some 50 psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and social workers from across the country. The team will be ready to deploy to new disasters, offering immediate mental health support and helping affected communities care for themselves in the long run.

“They can very quickly set up a holistic and complete psychosocial intervention to deal with a disaster, whatever that disaster may be,” said the Director of HELP’s Centre for Psychology, Dr. Goh Chee Leong.

It is an effort that aims to build up mental health care in communities across Malaysia. Even if no disaster strikes, children like Nur Alia can find support when dealing with the difficult task of growing up.

Indra Kumari Nadchatram and Lydia Lubon contributed to this story.




December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on efforts to help Malaysian children recover from their traumatic experience in the tsunami disaster.
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December 2006:
UNICEF Representative in Malaysia Gaye Phillips discusses UNICEF's work in tsunami-affected communities across the country.
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