The war in El Salvador is leaving an indelible impression on its young, according to a survey of local Salvadoran teen-agers who left their country but continue to feel the psychological aftershocks of the war.
Many of the 72 Salvadoran refugees interviewed are suffering because of their war experiences from post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychological illness that has been identified in many Vietnam War veterans and is characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks and sleep disorders, the study said.
The study, released yesterday at a conference called "Healing Broken Minds" and attended by about 100 local mental health counselors, social workers and psychologists, is based on detailed interviews with Salvadoran teen-agers.
One of the chief findings is that between one-third and one-half of the teen-agers may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the war-related violence they experienced in their homeland.
The illness, which also can lead to sudden and unexplainable shaking and feelings of guilt for having survived, in recent years has been associated with the war-related psychiatric problems of Vietnam veterans and has been used as a defense by some veterans at criminal trials.
Faced with the pressures of adapting to a new country and culture, "it is an extraordinary individual who can deal with all the problems of adaptation as well as of having seen one's father killed or one's neighbors disappear," said Genevieve Cowgill, director of a Toronto-based organization that helps victims of torture and violent persecution.
Cowgill was among about a dozen speakers at the conference and training session sponsored by the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs.
Preliminary results of the survey showed that of those interviewed between March and October, 81 percent said they had been exposed in El Salvador to at least one of the following -- violent death, violent attack, rape, interrogation, imprisonment or torture.
Some other findings are:Sixty-five of the teen-agers said they had personally witnessed the violent death of a family member, friend or an acquaintance; 47 percent said they or a family member had been violently attacked; 26 percent said they or a family member or acquaintance had been raped, and 50 percent said they had been interrogated.
More than 60 percent of the teen-agers said a specific event, most often violent or war-related, prompted them to leave their country.
Sixty percent said they have recently experienced sleep problems, nightmares, feelings of isolation, low self-worth, bad memories and feelings of guilt for escaping or surviving, and many of them said their war experiences are responsible for these problems.
"We're talking about a serious problem of great impact on the public health system," said David Harrington, a licensed social worker who has worked with Vietnam veterans suffering from the disorder and was a technical adviser on the local study.
"The adolescents are hurting, their families are hurting and there's no system of support for them," he said.
Harrington said that the study group is too small a sample to draw generalized conclusions about Salvadoran immigrants, but he hopes it will lead to a more thorough survey of several hundred immigrants.
Local officials estimate that 80,000 Central Americans live in the District and that the majority are from El Salvador, which has been marked by intense civil strife for 10 years.
The teen-agers who participated in the local survey were identified through seven local health, social service and education centers in the Adams-Morgan area of the District.