Felix Nyarko: Adolescents are vulnerable and resilient in war conditions a psychological study in the African context shows
The dissertation consists firstly of an interview study among Liberian war survivors on remembering, meaning-making and coping with their childhood war trauma. Adolescence as a developmental period involves intensive socio-biological changes, and the study also focuses on the survivors’ worldview and future prospects as well as the emotional and social resources among adolescents living in peaceful conditions.
The Liberian young adults who shared their war experiences in the study were children during the devastating civil wars in their country and, at the time of the interviews, they lived as refugees in Ghana.
In the meaning-making of their memories, both highly negative and highly positive themes emerged. They vividly remembered the killing of their family members, hiding in bushes, and fleeing for their lives. Examples: “I used to have awful frequent dreams about my aunt who was brutally killed during the war… It still horrifies me today and, if I recall it, I cannot sleep at night”. “The rebels found my brother who was hiding in the kitchen and brutally killed him with an axe. It was a horrific incident to witness as we watched from the bushes. All we could do was to hear him screaming while he experienced such a painful death”.
The war and being a refugee also caused them mental health problems involving self-harm and destructive behaviour, and a sense of a loss of opportunities. However, positive themes were also crystallised from the horrors as the young adults talked about increased awareness, gratefulness and an appreciation of life, compassion for other people, and identification with those who are suffering. Examples: “The experiences in the war have made me to want to help those in need. I know what it means for a person to tell me that they have not eaten for days”. “I believe everything happens for a reason and so, instead of the experience breaking me down, it has made me strong to persevere and achieve something for my future...” “It has also made me to always go to the aid of the needy and be a voice for the voiceless. I’m motivated and empowered by what I went through to fight for change in my society and entire country to bring a change in their lives”.
The second part of the dissertation explores culturally unique ways of family support in protecting the mental health of Ghanaian adolescents. The study reveals that good sibling relationships were important, but individual emotional and cognitive features only served mental health among adolescents who did not have violent and stressful experiences.
“The results are important for professionals working with children and youths affected by war, politicians who reconstruct post-conflict societies, and the victims and survivors themselves,” Nyarko says.
“The findings contribute to trauma research by emphasising survivors’ potential for resilience and urging to seek meaning and recovery. International bodies dedicated to peace, reconciliation, and nation-building should involve these young war survivors and help them to realise their full potential and life goals so that they can contribute to a flourishing nation. The results also recognise the importance of families for adolescents’ psychosocial adjustment in traumatic stress,” Nyarko adds.
It is noteworthy that, at the time of this dissertation study, Finnish investigators were examining the Liberian massacres during the war to bring perpetrators to justice. Before that, Liberia had not given foreign authorities permission to investigate the war crimes.
The doctoral candidate, Felix Nyarko from Ghana, holds a Master of Arts degree in peace, mediation and conflict research from Tampere University. His interests for postdoctoral research are the developmental aspects of the impact of trauma in adolescence and culturally unique ways of adolescent development.
The doctoral dissertation of M.A. Felix Nyarko in the field of developmental psychology titled War, stress and mental health in adolescence: The role of meaning-making, social relations, emotional intelligence and cognitive skills will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Tampere University at 12.15. on Friday 14 January 2022. Professor Ragnhild Dybdahl, University of Bergen, Norway, will be the opponent while Professor Raija-Leena Punamäki from the Faculty of Social Sciences acts as the custos.