Neglect and perceived stigmatization impact psychological distress of orphans in Tanzania.


BACKGROUND: Research has shown that orphans in sub-Saharan Africa are at increased risk for mental health problems. Exposure to maltreatment and HIV/AIDS-related stigmatization are related to orphans’ psychological distress. Yet, researchers stress the need for more research in low-income countries to identify which factors of being an orphan may lead to psychological distress. OBJECTIVES: The present study aims to systematically investigate orphans’ experiences of maltreatment and stigmatization to identify factors that relate to their psychological distress. METHODS: In total, 89 Tanzanian children who had lost at least one parent were compared to 89 matched non-orphans (mean age: 11 years; 51% boys). We measured exposure to maltreatment and perceived stigmatization as an orphan. Mental health was assessed using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, the Children’s Depression Inventory, the UCLA PTSD Index for Children, and the Reactive-Proactive Questionnaire. RESULTS: Orphans reported significantly more experiences of neglect, but not of abuse. A group comparison revealed more depressive symptoms, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and aggressive behavior among orphans. Neglect, abuse, and stigmatization correlated with orphans’ internalizing and externalizing problems, yet only neglect and stigmatization were related to orphans’ depression severity. Perceived stigmatization moderated the relationship between neglect and depression. CONCLUSIONS: Our findings suggest that orphans in Tanzania are at increased risk of experiencing neglect. Maltreatment and perceived stigmatization may play a role in orphans’ psychological distress. Culturally appropriate and evidence-based interventions may help to prevent maltreatment and stigmatization of orphans.