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August 1996

The Psychological and Medical Sequelae of War in Central American Refugee Mothers and Children

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Pediatrics and Steele Memorial Children's Research Center (Dr Locke) and the Department of Psychology (Dr McCloskey), The University of Arizona, Tucson; the School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Dr Southwick); and the University of Texas—Houston (Dr Fernández-Esquer).

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1996;150(8):822-828. doi:10.1001/archpedi.1996.02170330048008

Objective:  To investigate the physical and mainly psychological sequelae of exposure to war in Central American children and their mothers who immigrated to the United States on average 4 years before the study began.

Design:  Interview study.

Participants:  Twenty-two immigrant Central American women caretakers and 1 of their children aged 5 to 13 years.

Main Outcome Measures:  Standardized and new measures were administered to assess children's physical and mental health symptoms and exposure to political violence.

Results:  Eighteen of the 22 children had chronic health problems. Fifteen children and all of the adults had observed traumatic events, including bombings and homicides. Thirteen of the children showed mental health symptom profiles above established norms, although only 2 met the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder according to their own reports. Many of the caretakers were unaware of their child's psychological distress. Four of the mothers exhibited posttraumatic stress disorder, and their symptoms predicted their child's mental health.

Conclusions:  Pediatricians are sometimes the first and only contacts these families have with health care providers. Caretakers' reports of children's mental health are often incomplete. It is therefore important for physicians to probe for "hidden" symptoms in refugee children. These family members may need referrals to social and psychological services, and pediatricians can open the gates to existing community networks of support. Because we found that maternal mental health influences the child's, the child's interests are well served when pediatricians also encourage the mother to contact services for herself if she confides that she is experiencing some of the severe psychological sequelae reported by the women in this study.Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1996;150:822-828

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