Background: While the current knowledge base on the mental health effects of displacement is mainly limited to refugees residing in industrialised countries, this paper examines the impact of war-induced displacement and related risk factors on the mental health of Eastern Congolese adolescents, and compares currently internally displaced adolescents to returnees and non-displaced peers.
Methods: Data were collected from a community sample of 819 adolescents aged 13 to 21 years, attending one of 10 selected schools across the Ituri district in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Respondents completed culturally adapted self-report measures of posttraumatic stress symptoms (using the Impact of Event Scale – Revised) and internalising and externalising behaviour problems (by means of the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist – 37 for Adolescents). Associated factors studied were age, sex, parental death, exposure to war-related violence and daily stressors.
Results: Internally displaced persons (IDPs) reported highest mean scores for the IES-R and the HSCL-37A internalising scale, followed by returnees, while non-displaced adolescents scored significantly lower. However, ANCOVA tests showed that posttraumatic stress and internalising symptoms were mainly associated with traumatic exposure and daily stressors and not with displacement status. Externalising problem scores were associated with traumatic exposure, daily stressors and displacement. Remarkably, death of father was associated with fewer externalising problems. Sex was differently associated with internalising and externalising problems through traumatic and daily stressors.
Conclusions: As IDPs are highly exposed to violence and daily stressors, they report most psychological distress, when compared to returnees and non-displaced peers. The distinct mental health outcomes for returned youngsters illustrate how enhancing current socio-economic living conditions of war-affected adolescents could stimulate resilient outcomes, despite former trauma or displacement.