Not Just Guns: Ukrainians Need Mental Health Support

December 12, 2022 Topic: Russia-Ukraine War Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Russia-Ukraine WarUkrainiansMental HealthTraumaRecovery

Not Just Guns: Ukrainians Need Mental Health Support

While the military struggle between Ukraine and Russia will continue to define the war, rebuilding Ukraine will require an investment in mental health support.

The war in Ukraine tests the limits of those who are victimized by Russian attacks, whether they are military personnel or civilians experiencing shelling in heavily populated cities and rural areas. While Western allies justifiably support Ukraine’s military efforts, it remains equally important to supply mental health support to those in need. In fact, if we expect Ukraine to manage recovery, not just infrastructurally but also socially, Ukrainians must manage the traumatic experiences they have had during this conflict. 

Research has shown that armed conflict exacerbates the prevalence of mental health problems for both soldiers and civilians. Experts have also concluded:

There is no doubt that the populations in war and conflict situations should receive mental health care as part of the total relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction processes. As happened in the first half of the 20th century, when war gave a big push to the developing concepts of mental health, the study of the psychological consequences of the wars of the current century could add new understandings and solutions to mental health problems of general populations.

10 million people in Ukraine are currently at risk of mental disorders such as acute stress, anxiety, depression, substance use, and post-traumatic stress disorder. With 22 percent of the population living in areas actively affected by the conflict, there are enormous challenges for the local health system, which is suffering from the direct and indirect impacts of the war. The Ukrainian government is stepping up in its efforts to support mental health initiatives, but it is obviously faced with considerable hurdles.

During armed conflict, and especially in regions where seeking mental health support can often be frowned upon, it is crucial to break the stigma, provide coping strategies, and strengthen resilience. This is true for adults but applies even more to children and youth. Trauma-informed programs that can be rolled out cost-effectively include breathing techniques and meditation, as well as self-expression through writing or drawing.

We should clearly recognize that the priorities of the war obviously lie within the confines of the military struggle. That said—and this is something that the Ukraine war, in particular, has displayed—war does not only rely on military capabilities. It involves motivation and determination and the support system of families and friends. 

Mental health expert Alysha Tagert, former executive director at Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, told European Union and British parliamentarians that "the war in Ukraine has had devastating effects on the Ukrainian people—not only their social and political institutions but their mental health as well. As policymakers, advocates, and professionals, we need to consider the survivors' state of mind, which is central to the post-war reconstruction process.” Target added that “we must acknowledge not just the visible destruction of the country wrought by the armed conflict but the traumatic experiences that inflict invisible wounds on the entire nation. That means we must listen first."

Providing tools for mental health support can be difficult in crisis regions. However, there are self-help toolboxes that play a vital role in alleviating anxiety. Tagert underscores that coping toolboxes can include simple, everyday items, such as chewing gum, stress balls, or fidget spinners, that can bring a person to the present moment through touching, tasting, or seeing. 

Support for the people of Ukraine can come in many forms, and it is essential for the country’s future that mental health is center-stage in the fight for recovery.

Bill Wirtz is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Consumer Choice Center.

Image: Reuters