Papua New Guinea earthquakes shake up concerns for children’s mental health


Five-year-old Douglas Jacob was injured by falling rocks which hit him on the head when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea in February. Picture: UNICEF


Children in Papua New Guinea are suffering significant trauma and stress from a major earthquake and the hundreds of aftershocks that have rocked the Hela and Southern Highland provinces since February.

The United States Geological Survey estimates more than 288 aftershocks have hit the region since a devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake decimated communities on February 26. The latest aftershock struck yesterday. 

The PNG Government has estimated 270,000 people need of urgent assistance, including 125,000 children. Of those, about 15-20 per cent need psychological support, according to the World Health Organisation, UNICEF reported.

UNICEF PNG representative Karen Allen warned that trauma and stress experienced by children could have negative consequences to their long-term well-being.

“Children are still being confronted by fear, loss, confusion, family separation, deteriorated living conditions and disruption of social and school activities,” she said in a statement.

UNICEF is working with the PNG government and other partners to provide safe spaces for children and women to access services, including psychological and psychosocial support and counselling.

The cluster of aftershocks around the major earthquake that happened on February 26. Image: USGS

They have established 26 child-friendly spaces, safe places for children to receive psychosocial support to regain a sense of normalcy as well as to play and learn life skills.

Monash Psychology Centre deputy director  Dr James Courtney said trauma often resulted in regression in children’s mental and physical skills. 

“Say someone was toilet trained, they might lose that skill,” he said.

“If they were weaning from breastfeeding, eating with two hands … they might lose that skill.”

Dr James Courtney

Children in PNG are already at high risk of violence and abuse.

Data from UNICEF showed children in PNG experience some of the highest rates of violence in the Asia-Pacific region.

About 75 per cent of children experience physical abuse and around 80 per cent experience emotional abuse throughout their childhood.

Dr Courtney said children in communities affected by the earthquake were already at risk of trauma.

“There are a few people particularly vulnerable … they include children, people of low socio-economic status [and] people with pre-existing conditions,” he said

“[It’s] reasonable to predict this group would need to be monitored for post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.”

However, Dr Courtney added it would be hard to be certain of the long-term effects of the earthquake.

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Roads and communication systems were extensively damaged in the earthquake. 

“In terms of [the] onset of post-traumatic stress disorder … the issue here is that whilst there are lots and lots of disasters in communities like this, there’s not lots and lots of research,” he said.

Dr Courtney said he believed the local community would help those affected, minimising the impact of the trauma.

“[The community] can rally together and rebuild quite quickly,” he said.