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Helping Malaysia’s children suffering from post-tsunami trauma

© UNICEF Malaysia/2005/Nadchatram
Nine-year-old Nur Alia, from the Malaysian island of Langkawi, tells her counsellor, Dr. Sarimah Bt Sudin, about her recurring nightmares of the big black wave.

By Lydia Lubon

LANGKAWI, 15 December 2005 – It’s hard to fathom that the beach where 9-year-old Nur Alia now plays hopscotch with her village friends was completely devastated by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Laughing and giggling her way through the game, she is able to momentarily forget the recurring nightmares that haunt her of the day “the wave came.”

Nearly one year after the tsunami struck, life is seemingly tranquil here on the coast of Langkawi island: fishermen tend to their boats, children play on sandy shores and villagers carry on with daily life. Today most of the physical destruction has been cleared away with the help of Government financial aid. But the emotional scars left by the natural disaster, especially for children, are far from healed.  

“They came back…my dreams of the waves coming. I felt afraid,” says Nur Alia of her recurring nightmares. The young girl has attended about seven months of counselling since the beginning of the year. “She was taking medication for her nightmares, but in the last few months she discontinued treatment as her condition seemed to improve. But she has since relapsed,” says Dr. Sarimah Bt Sudin as she smiles gently at Nur Alia.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

© UNICEF Malaysia/2005/Nadchatram
Nur Alia joins her friends for a game of hopscotch by the sea. Unlike her friends, Nur Alia was alone when the tsunami struck her house, just 50 metres away from the shoreline.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common types of psychosocial distress observed in children following a disaster. They typically include insomnia, agitation, depression, phobia, anxiety and nightmares. If left untreated, the disorder can often surface several months or even years after the event. 

That’s one of the reasons why UNICEF responded within one week of the disaster and quickly commissioned a team of researchers from HELP University College to conduct a ‘needs analysis’ in Malaysia’s tsunami-affected region. The team, made up of three psychologists and one counsellor, found the natural disaster had left deep emotional scars on children who experienced the event.  

“In most developing countries, in the face of a natural disaster, it’s rare that psychosocial interventions are put into place,” says Dr. Goh Chee Leong, Director of the Centre for Psychology at HELP University College. “This lack of emotional support can have quite a negative affect on traumatised children.” 

In response to this unmet need, UNICEF has been addressing the long term emotional impact suffered by Malaysian tsunami survivors. So far, UNICEF and its partners have organised two rounds of workshops to provide post-trauma psychosocial training for around 60 influential community leaders in the region. UNICEF hopes this trained group can form support networks for mental health in tsunami-affected communities for years to come.   UNICEF Representative to Malaysia, Gaye Phillips explains: “What is exciting about this particular UNICEF project is the fact that we are putting into place an integrated infrastructure for psychosocial well-being, which is going to last way beyond just the recovery period after the tsunami.”

To dream again

Meanwhile, on the island of Langkawi, countless tsunami-affected children like Nur Alia have benefited from HELP University College and UNICEF’s initiative to tackle the long term threat of trauma. “Although Nur Alia has relapsed, she has improved a great deal emotionally since her first weeks in counselling. She has gained her appetite back and is performing well in school,” says Dr. Sarimah, placing a reassuring hand on Nur Alia’s tiny shoulder. At the end of the day, Nur Alia walks back to her village home, hopeful her nightmares about the “big wave” will be replaced by normal dreams again.

Sabine Dolan contributed to this report from New York.








December 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on UNICEF-supported psychosocial programs to help children suffering from post-tsunami trauma.

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