Mental health support is crucial for children traumatised by earthquake

The Programs Coordinator at Turkish organisation Maya Vakfi talks about a Theirworld-supported project to provide emergency relief after the 2023 disaster.

Theirworld works with partners in several countries to deliver life-changing projects for children and young people. In Turkey, we support Maya Vakfi to help children left traumatised and struggling to cope by a devastating earthquake earlier this year.

In the latest of our Spotlight On series, we talk to Ezgi Berktaş, Programs Coordinator at Maya Vakfi about that work and her personal motivation.

Tell us about Maya Vakfi and your role.

Established in 2015, Maya Vakfı is committed to creating a vibrant and compassionate society that values curiosity, mutual support and the well-being of children and youth.

As the Programs Coordinator, I am dedicated to ensuring the mental and physical well-being of children and youth aged five to 24, with a special focus on those facing adversity. This includes Turkish and refugee children who have experienced trauma due to disasters, pandemics, wars, migration or the loss of family.

Our foundation operates at the intersection of expert knowledge and the passion of skilled volunteers. Together, we strive to enhance the awareness and capabilities of individuals and organisations engaged in supporting these young individuals.

What is the current situation for the young people you work with?

On February 6, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern and central Turkey. It impacted an estimated 13 million people – predominantly children and youth. National and international efforts swiftly initiated emergency response activities, ranging from rescue operations to addressing fundamental needs such as shelter, food and hygiene.

Despite these commendable efforts, a critical gap exists in the provision of psychosocial support. The affected regions, including Hatay, Şanlıurfa and Adıyaman, are not only grappling with the aftermath of the earthquake but are also home to a significant refugee population. This dual challenge further exacerbates vulnerabilities and deepens existing inequalities.

In the wake of disasters, particularly earthquakes, vulnerable populations bear a disproportionate impact, leading to heightened inequalities. According to assessments by both local and international organisations, refugees in affected areas face discrimination, xenophobia and violence.

It is crucial to recognise that a substantial number of Syrian refugee children have witnessed and endured traumatic experiences. These include violence, abuse, war, multiple displacements, migration, loss of family, inadequate parenting, extreme poverty and social discrimination. The urgent need for mental health and psychosocial support is a key priority for children and youth in the affected regions.

Tell us about Maya Vakfi’s project to provide emergency trauma relief after the earthquake.

During the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Maya Vakfı swiftly mobilised its psychologists, clinical psychologists and social workers to provide essential support.

Our team conducted psychological first aid for survivors of all ages, with a specific focus on children. The emergency child protection services were initiated to address the unique needs of young individuals facing trauma, through group psychosocial support sessions.

Recognising the profound impact of traumatic experiences on children’s physical health, psychological well-being, brain development, behaviours and learning skills, Maya Vakfı implemented a trauma-focused mental health and psychosocial support initiative. This programme incorporates innovative approaches such as creative arts therapy.

Our approach places disadvantaged and vulnerable children at the core of services, particularly those threatened by protection issues or with traumatised experiences. The goal is to enhance their psychological well-being and social resilience.

The project offers access to art-based mental health care, including structured group sessions and individualised support for children. These sessions include art therapy, dance and movement therapy, and music therapy. Creative interventions provide children with the means to articulate experiences that may be challenging to verbalise.

Maya Vakfı also emphasises the creation of a supportive environment for children. Parenting sessions are an integral part of the programme, helping caregivers identify and support their children’s emotions and behaviours effectively.

What steps did Maya Vakfi team take to provide rapid relief to children?

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Maya Vakfi swiftly activated an emergency action plan. This comprehensive plan outlines psychosocial support activities to be executed in the acute, mid-term and long-term phases.

The key steps taken include:

Two-year mental health and child protection services. Maya Vakfi is committed to providing access to these services for individuals residing in or relocated from the earthquake-affected areas.

Acute period interventions. In the initial weeks following the earthquake, we deployed mobile teams to deliver mental health services to address the immediate needs and mitigate the early impact of trauma within the first six months.

Psychological resilience-building. Building on the initial interventions, the subsequent six months of the plan prioritised enhancing the psychological resilience of the affected population.

Long-term psychological support. In the latter part of the two-year plan, Maya Vakfi is dedicated to providing sustained, long-term psychological support services.

By strategically implementing this multifaceted plan, Maya Vakfi aimed to address the diverse and evolving needs of the affected population.

How do the children you work with benefit from having access to trauma support?

Access to trauma support has yielded remarkable improvements in the well-being of children in earthquake-affected areas. This is exemplified by poignant stories such as Mehmet’s.

Before the earthquake, Mehmet had been referred to Maya Vakfi by another organisation, He participated in a four-week, art-focused group programme that centred around emotions, expression, trauma and bullying themes, providing an avenue for Mehmet to engage in activities tailored to his needs. His family also took part in positive parenting sessions.

After the February 6 earthquake, Mehmet’s mother reached out to Maya Vakfi once more, expressing deep concerns about her son’s emotional state. The disaster had caused profound fear and anxiety, manifesting in heightened aggression, difficulties in basic tasks and persistent expressions of anxieties. Recognising the urgency, Maya Vakfi’s clinical counselling team initiated an eight-week intervention.

As the sessions unfolded, Mehmet’s mother played a pivotal role in supporting her son’s individual counselling process. She reported a substantial reduction in the issues, underscoring the transformative impact of trauma support. This success story highlights not only the effectiveness of Maya Vakfi’s interventions but also the crucial role of dedicated family support in the healing process.

What are your hopes for the future of Maya Vakfi?

I envision Maya Vakfi expanding its reach and influence, becoming a beacon of hope and support for even more children and youth facing adversity. As we navigate the challenges of an ever-changing world, I hope to see our foundation at the forefront of innovative and sustainable solutions, addressing the evolving needs of the communities we serve.

Maya Vakfi’s future holds the promise of enhanced partnerships, both locally and internationally, fostering collaboration with like-minded organisations and individuals committed to the well-being of children.

Furthermore, I hope for Maya Vakfi to continue refining and expanding its programmes, ensuring they remain responsive to the diverse and dynamic challenges faced by children and youth. This includes a commitment to continuous learning and adaptation, leveraging the latest research and methodologies to provide the most effective and relevant support.

Ultimately, my vision for Maya Vakfi is one where the seeds of resilience, hope and opportunity that we plant today blossom into a future where every child can thrive, regardless of the obstacles they face.

What keeps you motivated when challenges seem too large to overcome?

The unwavering source of my motivation, especially when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, stems from the profound belief in the transformative power of collective action and the positive impact our efforts can have on the lives of those we serve. The realisation that every small step forward contributes to a larger journey of progress keeps me focused and determined.

Witnessing the resilience and strength of the children and youth we support at Maya Vakfi serves as a constant reminder of the significance of our mission. Their stories of overcoming adversity, coupled with the positive outcomes of our interventions, inspire me to persist in the face of challenges.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned outside the classroom?

It’s the profound impact of empathy and understanding in fostering meaningful connections and driving positive change.

Engaging with diverse communities, facing real-world challenges and working alongside people with varied backgrounds have underscored the importance of listening deeply and empathising with others’ perspectives. This lesson has been instrumental in shaping my approach to leadership, collaboration and problem-solving.

I’ve come to appreciate that every individual carries a unique narrative. Understanding those narratives is crucial for building bridges, fostering cooperation and effecting meaningful change. This lesson has influenced not only my personal relationships but also my professional endeavours.