Responding to the psychosocial needs of children

A peaceful, sunny Saturday in Nepal was shattered in just a few moments when a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the country just before noon on 25 April 2015. It was the worst earthquake to hit Nepal since 1934 – killing 8,897 people, injuring 22,310.

As 1.7 million children were affected in the worst-hit districts and hundreds of thousands were made homeless, UNICEF transformed immediately into emergency mode.

One of the unique aspects of the initial Nepal Earthquake was the number of aftershocks that continued to occur every single day and night after it hit. At the very least, these unpredictable aftershocks were highly unsettling to everyone – and on several occasions, they leant more towards the terrifying, given their immense strength – especially for children.

On 12 May, just before 1 pm, I was accompanying a team conducting structural damage assessments of several schools in Kathmandu. We were inside a classroom, discovering major cracks in the walls caused by the first earthquake, when the second Nepal earthquake struck without any warning: 7.3 magnitude.

Instantly, the entire four-storey school building started to shake and sway violently; it was difficult to keep our balance as the ground shifted from side to side with sudden, jerky movements. We headed straight for a small open courtyard, having to shout at each other to stay close because of all the noise. We had no clear idea how long the second earthquake actually lasted, but for each of us it seemed an eternity.

Anjali (13) listens to her grandfather Dil Bahadur Darain speak about his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, who died during the April 25 earthquake.
Anjali (13) listens to her grandfather Dil Bahadur Darain speak about his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, who died during the April 25 earthquake. © UNICEF/UNI187811/Shrestha

The second earthquake came at a time when the people of Nepal were getting over the shock of the first earthquake and were literally starting to rebuild their lives; 156 people were killed and 3,314 people were injured in the second earthquake. With 505,745 homes destroyed and 279,330 homes damaged in the two earthquakes, tens of thousands more people began sleeping out in the open again fearing their homes might collapse.

Perhaps one of the biggest consequences of the second earthquake was the emotional impact it had on children. After the first earthquake, well-meaning parents told their kids, “It is all over, there’s nothing to be scared about anymore.” But immediately after the second earthquake, injured children in hospitals had to be moved outside into tents. Others left their damaged homes (and even homes that had no damage) with their families to sleep in the open under plastic sheeting. Some children learnt of friends who had been killed, injured or were missing.

Many Nepali children that I met said they didn’t want to go back to their homes at all because they were too scared that a third earthquake would come and their homes would collapse.

When ‘home’ ceases to be a place of safety, protection and security for a child, there is a clear need to help address the emotional toll.

A facilitator helps one of several young boys who are drawing and colouring during an early childhood development activity in a UNICEF-supported temporary learning centre.
©UNICEFMK/2015/TomislavGeorgievA facilitator helps one of several young boys who are drawing and colouring during an early childhood development activity in a UNICEF-supported temporary learning centre. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1434/Newar

UNICEF’s emergency work in Nepal covers all programmatic areas including health, nutrition, education, child protection, water, sanitation – and for children who went through two major earthquakes in just over two weeks, along with literally hundreds of aftershocks – UNICEF’s support for children’s psychosocial well-being took on an increasingly important role.

This support includes:
• Call-in radio programmes that allow parents to speak with psychologists about issues their children are facing and how to help them cope. Not only do the parents calling in benefit from the advice provided, but so do the millions of other people listening.
• Art therapy sessions held with children in affected districts by counsellors who help them to express their feelings of hope, fear, sadness and joy through drawing, and then follow-up with children who may need further psychosocial support.

Also, as schools in Nepal were closed from 25 April-31 May, UNICEF child-friendly spaces gave children a chance to be with other kids in a safe environment with adult supervision, where they could play games, sing songs, dance to traditional music, engage in sports and have the opportunity to meditate, all to help provide a sense of normalcy in an absolutely abnormal situation.

Ahead of the back-to-school process, which began on 31 May with the reopening of schools that were structurally sound along with the opening of temporary learning spaces for children whose schools were destroyed or damaged, many teachers received psychosocial first aid training.

UNICEF’s emergency work in Nepal continues to make good progress on the long road to recovery for Nepal’s people, especially for its children.

We know that children are resilient, and if they feel safe and cared for, and are able to have a sense of routine – including being back in school where they can learn, develop and play – they can better cope and recover from traumatic experiences.

After surviving two major earthquakes in just over two weeks, the children of Nepal are already beginning to do so with UNICEF support.

Kent Page served as UNICEF Nepal Emergency Spokesperson.

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