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Morocco Earthquake: How the Psyche Handles Trauma, Loss

The violent earthquake that recently hit Morocco claimed the lives of approximately 2,946 people and injured 5,674. The World Health Organization estimates that the disaster has affected over 300,000 people in Marrakech and adjacent areas. The quake, the most powerful to shake the country in almost a century, left people grappling with basic necessities and shelter. It also left deep scars on the psychology of adults and children alike, even those living in places far away from where the tragedy happened.

Of the most affected by the earthquake, children were the hardest hit. From the standpoint of most experts in child development, the psychology of children differs greatly from that of adults because children’s brains are still developing.

Psychologist Jihad Bnimoussa explained, in an interview with Barlamantoday, that “the psychology of children is different from that of adults, teens and adolescents and this has to do with neurology and how their brain is wired.”

“The brain is developing through our lives and only kind of stops at the age of 25. Therefore, there are areas of the brain that have not yet developed in childhood… The way that we respond to our life and our reality, understand things, process them, and react to them will be different at every stage,” she elaborated.

A child’s brain, which has not reached the required maturity, reacts and process trauma differently, by weaving its own tapestry of emotional responses, ideas, and behaviors.

Bnimoussa emphasized that a child’s response to a traumatic experience depends on the types of emotions that were triggered and how he/she understood and interpreted them. “It may differ for children especially if there is no particular guidance, an explanation to the narratives given to that event.”

The expert threw light on a different kind of responses: the behavioral response, as children often convey their feelings non-verbally, through subtle signs like changes in behavior and physiology. Parent or caregivers should pay attention to the behaviors and gestures of the child, asking themselves questions like, “Has there been any shift or change in the child’s normal behavior?”

Behaviors can be linked to the children feeling psychologically safe or the opposite, and could also be linked to the presence of coping skills or the absence thereof. Recognizing these changes in childhood behavior becomes vital in providing the necessary, age-appropriate support for children who may not yet have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate their feelings verbally.

Children are remarkably expressive, even in the face of trauma, whether through behavior changes or non-verbal means such as drawing and creative expressions to communicate their emotions. Bnimoussa explained that the parenting style and how much parents engage their children in more complex conversations also affect a child’s reaction upon exposure to such unfortunate event.

She enumerated some signs that could be reflective of the psychological state of children, such as a pale face or wetting the bed. “These signals could be very good ways to start a conversation with the child. You can give space to express themselves through drawing and use that as medium of conversation to support them.”

Effective communication emerges as a linchpin, especially for children, in the aftermath of traumatic events. As Bnimoussa emphasized, “effective communication plays a big role especially for children… being able to understand what happened and put it in a positive context helps children process it in a way that is more balanced.”

One example would be that many people in Morocco experienced fear and trauma during the first earthquake, and without fully comprehending how earthquakes occur, they developed a sense of paranoia about a second forthcoming one.

Many people talked about the earthquake even “coming for them,” personalizing and catastrophizing the event, due to their unprocessed and unacknowledged fears. Communication in cases like this often helps prevent negative interpretations, offering a framework to understand and contextualize the traumatic event, fostering resilience in both children and adults.

Understanding the various levels of psychological support required after a shocking event is crucial. Bnimoussa has identified three distinct levels of support necessary to address the aftermath of such an event. From community-based efforts to specialized interventions, these responses can make a significant difference in helping individuals cope with trauma.

“There are different levels of response and support that people need depending on their reaction and feeling after the earthquake… the first level is being able to have some form of community-based support, being also able to channel a lot of emotions in a positive context and this is what we have seen in a lot of people participating in aid campaigns, blood donation, fundraisers… that is a positive way of dealing with the psychological effect of trauma,” she said.

Bnimoussa went on to say that the second level of support is “crisis conversations which can help with contextualizing the event as well as some techniques to help calm down and switch off the stress response of the nervous system. We have been training teachers and social workers to be able to do this here in Morocco and it is based on having a single conversation with individuals to feel empathy and release emotions… Different people will need different approaches.”

The third level concerns the individuals who have severe anxiety or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “We saw people suffering from night terrors and flash backs of the earthquake, with the same intensity as if it has just happened. Their nervous system is unable to calm down to the point that they develop sleep disorder and even insomnia. This category requires more intensive and prolonged support,” she explained.

The expert touched also on the stigma attached to people seeking psychological support, especially in some cultural contexts like the Arab world, a fact that undermines the profession and creates barriers to seeking help. “There is some stigma in a lot of communities around mental health. People do not want to reach out and look for support because there is this stigma of being mentally ill.”

The psychologist clarified that there is a lack of understating and awareness of mental health as a dynamic process. “Our mind is the place where we experience our entire reality. If something is not working within the brain, we see the disruption in our reality in the form of feelings such as sluggishness at work, disengagement from a relationship….”

She emphasized that individuals facing metal health issues should keep in mind that it is a temporary phase. “Once you have overcome these obstacles, you will resume your journey through life with increased confidence and resilience.”

Bnimoussa underlined the importance of training more mental health experts to bridge the gap in terms of resources at both national and regional levels. She concluded with a heartfelt message: “To any person who wants support, I would say: we support each other. It is peer-to-peer support; we can just listen to each other and create a nonjudgmental space where we feel safe to share our fears and doubts. Do not underestimate the role that you play in the life of the people you love.”