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Studies Find Post-Traumatic Stress Rampant in War-Torn Uganda


Three studies in the latest issue of the "Journal of the American Medical Association" focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in war-torn Uganda. The researchers found that in some cases, the emotional harm can be repaired, but in other cases, it cannot be and is a major obstacle to political reconciliation. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Periodically, the publishers of the JAMA devote an entire issue to a single topic. This week, the theme issue focuses on human rights abuses.

Two of the three studies investigated the scars left by years of civil war between the Ugandan government and rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. Though the two sides are now engaged in on-again-off-again peace talks, during 20 years of fighting countless numbers of people have been killed and an estimated 1.5 million have been forced from their homes and are now living in camps.

One of the studies, conducted between April and May of 2005, examined the prevalence of post-traumatic disorder and symptoms of depression among 2,500 internally displaced adults in four regions in northern Uganda.

Investigators found three-quarters of those surveyed suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and almost half of them were classified as depressed.

Patrick Vinck of the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues identified four levels of trauma. Those suffering the mildest level of trauma had witnessed but were not directly affected by war-related violence, while those suffering the most severe form were victims of kidnapping or threatened with death.

Vinck, who is currently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says the less traumatized individuals were more likely to want to seek a peaceful end to the conflict in Uganda.

But he says it was a different story with severely affected adults who were kidnapped or threatened with death.

"What we saw is that people who had those symptoms were more likely to support violence as a means to end the conflict," he said.

In the second study published in JAMA, German researchers sampled the views of younger Ugandans, former child soldiers between the ages of 11 and 18 who were forcibly recruited in the Great Lakes Region of Uganda, as well as neighboring areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo. All of those interviewed, 169 former soldiers, reported witnessing or participating in beatings, rapes and killings, and one-third of them suffered from post-traumatic stress.

As in the study of the displaced adults in Uganda, the researchers say that the former child soldiers who suffered the most severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress were significantly less open to reconciliation and had significantly more feelings of revenge.

In the third study published in JAMA, investigators at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland sought to find out whether therapy was effective in treating anxiety and depression in Ugandan youngsters exposed to years of civil war.

The researchers conducted psychological interventions involving 300 adolescents in two camps in northern Uganda from May through December 2005.

The researchers compared group therapy sessions to creative play techniques, which included role playing and artistic expression.

Researcher Judith Bass says creative play had little or no effect in alleviating symptoms of depression in the participants, while group therapy was quite effective, particularly among girls.

"And I'm not sure that's all that inconsistent with what we see when psychotherapies have been used in other places, where the impact is greater among girls who potentially have more ability to sit and talk about their problems and things like that. But in terms of the boys, maybe we need to start looking at what else can be done for the boys. Maybe boys need an added component, and not just talk therapy," she said.

Bass acknowledges that there are many psychological programs to help heal victims of violence in Africa and other parts of the world. She hopes her study will help people find those that are most effective.