Emotional scars: The true cost of war and violence

People seeking refuge from war or domestic abuse need more than a roof over their head; they need good mental health services so future generations don’t pay the price

People in war have something in common with people in the home; their experiences, if extreme, can pass on mental and physical health issues to an as yet unborn generation.

This is important because war always seems to be happening in the world – we are more aware of it now, of course – and some of those displaced by war seek refuge in our country.

Our debate about how to cope with refugees from conflict tends to focus on accommodation. But we need to make ourselves aware also of the health needs of the refugees we take in and of their children, even those who are not yet born.

The same point can be made about Irish people who live with the threat of violence or abuse in their own homes or who don’t get enough to eat, and of their children. We have to take care of their basic survival needs, such as shelter, yes, but we need to do far better when it comes to emotional needs and to destigmatising physical and mental health.


Variations in heartbeat (called respiratory sinus arrhythmia) indicate that a person can adapt flexibly to stress. Girls who suffer extreme stress can later pass on to their children, a greater susceptibility to stress in their own lives, according to acclaimed research by Dr Stacy Drury, a US psychiatrist. These girls and their babies also show a lower variability in their heartbeat.

That an adult might have mental health or physical health problems because of what happened to his or her mother before they were conceived is startling, yet other research has found the same results.

Adversity and stress in childhood can make us hypersensitive to threats later on even in situations in which no threat exists. This can play havoc with a person’s life, let alone with the lives of others around them. High rates of extreme childhood stress have been liked also to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a report in The Psychologist.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control in the US found in 2008 that extreme childhood adversity in itself can lead to higher adult rates of many physical conditions, including stroke and cancer.

Apply these findings to boys and girls in Gaza, for instance, and you can see an ocean wave of mental health problems flowing on for generations to come. The same is very likely, I think, to occur in Israeli soldiers who are not in fact supermen or superwomen, but have the same nervous system as anybody else.

Evidence from the American civil war – which saw large numbers of captured soldiers kept in dreadful overcrowded conditions in camps – suggests that in some cases children, conceived after their release, were prone to physical and emotional issues.

Not everybody is affected in the same way. Some respond with resilience and some may not show any effects at all. And some suffer in the ways outlined here.

We live in such a traumatised world that it is impossible to step back and see clearly how old conflicts are playing out in our minds and bodies today.

When it comes to asylum seekers and refugees, we need to think further than providing a roof over their heads. What many of them will carry inside them, regardless of what roof they are under, are the emotional scars not only of their own experiences but perhaps of a previous generation’s experiences. And those scars may pass on to their children and grandchildren, bringing mental health needs.

In a way that is the true cost of war and also the true cost of the abuse by people of each other in everyday life. If we are willing to reduce that cost by providing good mental health services, we can make the world a better place.

And if we really aspire to make a better future, we can start by treating each other decently in the here and now.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness - a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).