Sierra Leone

The intergenerational impact of war on mental health and psychosocial wellbeing: lessons from the longitudinal study of war affected youth in Sierra Leone

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Theresa S. Betancourt, Katrina Keegan, Jordan Farrar & Robert T. Brennan

Conflict and Health volume 14, Article number: 62 (2020) Cite this article



Globally, one in four children lives in a country affected by armed conflict or disaster often accompanied by exposure to a range of adversities including violent trauma and loss. Children involved with armed groups (often referred to as “child soldiers”) typically exhibit high levels of mental health needs linked to their experiences. The Longitudinal Study of War-Affected Youth (LSWAY) in Sierra Leone is a seventeen-year prospective longitudinal study of the long-term effects of children’s experiences in the country’s eleven-year (1991–2002) civil war on their adult mental health and functioning in addition to exploring the potential mechanisms by which intergenerational transmission of emotional and behavioral disruptions due to war trauma may operate. LSWAY illuminates how war-related and post-conflict experiences shape long-term adult functioning, family dynamics, and developmental outcomes in offspring.


The LSWAY study utilizes mixed methodologies that incorporate qualitative and quantitative data to unpack risk and protective factors involved in social reintegration, psychosocial adjustment, parenting, and interpersonal relationships. To date, study findings demonstrate striking levels of persistent mental health problems among former child soldiers as adults with consequences for their families, but also risk and protective patterns that involve family- and community-level factors. This case study examines the course of LSWAY from inception through implementation and dissemination, including building on the study results to design and evaluate several intervention models.


The case study offers a unique perspective on challenges and field realities of health research in a fragile, post-conflict setting common in the context of humanitarian emergencies. LSWAY findings along with lessons learned from the field can inform future research as well as intervention research and implementation science to address the mental health and development of war-affected young people. With four waves of data collection and a planned fifth wave, LSWAY also provides rare insights into the intergenerational effects of humanitarian crises on children, youth, and families across generations.