Forty-one orphans whose fathers and/or mothers had died from AIDS, and were living in the poor suburbs of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, were compared with 41 matched non-orphans from the same neighbourhoods. The subjects were given an arithmetic test and a semi-structured questionnaire concerning any internalizing problems, their attendance at school and their experiences of punishment, reward and hunger. The scale of internalizing problems comprised 21 items adapted from the Rand Mental Health and Beck Depression Inventories concerning mood, pessimism, somatic symptoms, sense of failure, anxiety, positive affect and emotional ties. Most orphans lived with aunts and uncles. Compared with non-orphans, they were significantly less likely to be in school but those who did attend school had similar arithmetic scores. Significantly more orphans went to bed hungry. Orphans had markedly increased internalizing problems compared with non-orphans (p < 0.0001) and 34% reported they had contemplated suicide in the past year. Multiple regression analysis indicated that the independent predictors of internalizing problem scores were sex (females higher than males), going to bed hungry, no reward for good behaviour, not currently attending school, as well as being an orphan.
Conclusion: The orphans not only had unmet basic needs, but also had markedly increased internalizing problems, thus their long-term mental health would be in jeopardy. There is an urgent need to expand and improve current intervention programmes not only to meet the basic needs but also to include psychosocial support, counselling services for the orphans, and training for their carers and teachers.