The war in Ukraine has shaken the entire world. Putin’s aggression caused what is predicted to be the biggest refugee and humanitarian crisis of the century. Since February 24th, over 2 million Ukrainians have fled their country, seeking safety across Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, and the rest of Europe. Here, in the UK and all over the globe, the Ukrainian diaspora is currently separated from their loved ones, while the rest of the world is closely following the events of the unfolding tragedy. This horrifying situation creates a greater risk of developing mental health issues since many of us already struggle with chronic stress, anxiety or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is absolutely normal to feel numb, powerless, anxious, hopeless or overwhelmed when faced with the realities of war. In this article, you can learn how to protect your mental health, support others, and take action to get involved.
The impact of war in Ukraine on mental health
The population that keeps paying the highest price in any war are the innocent, the civilians.
It’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to go to sleep in a free country and wake up to the sound of the air raid sirens and explosions. Your entire life changes completely. Forever. Your priorities, needs, worries, goals and plans for the future. It’s all situated in the context of war. “Shelling, sniper-fire and landmines constitute a daily reality of millions”, says Ursula Mueller, an Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs of United Nations.
Mental Health Challenges of Ukrainians:
Aside from visible damages of the war, there’s also the suffering caused by the endured trauma. It cuts scars, which might be invisible to an eye, but have long-lasting effects on an individual’s life. Yves Daccord, director-general of ICRC, stresses the importance of recognising mental health as a priority in humanitarian emergencies.
According to WHO, approximately 1 in 5 people living in war zones and conflict areas struggles with mental health conditions such as:
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
Women tend to be more affected than men by such brutal reality. However, it is children that suffer the most. For the past eight years, a generation of Ukrainian children has been growing up in a constant threat to their safety, chronically stressed, directly affected by the conflict with Russia. Unicef states that “practically every child caught up on the conflict in eastern Ukraine is now thought to be in need of psychosocial support”.
Right now, the mental health of Ukrainian children is even more likely to deteriorate due to separation from loved ones, as fathers and sons are being deployed to the army. Now, these children need to deal with the fear of the unknown, intensified by becoming refugees and fleeing Ukraine.
The mental health issues don’t stop once reaching an asylum. Refugees carry the weight of their trauma in their new “home”, where they can often experience prejudice and discrimination. In addition, refugees tend to have limited access to education and healthcare, which only compounds the burden of their suffering.
Mental Health Challenges of The Ukrainian Diaspora:
The heartbreak of this tragedy is real for both: Ukrainians who are directly under Russian invasion, those who managed to flee the country, and the Ukrainian diaspora around the world. Their circumstances might differ, yet they all identify as one nation with ongoing suffering.
Witnessing the cruelty of war long-distance and trying to cope with the overwhelming uncertainty is the daily reality of the Ukrainian diaspora. Every morning brings a new wave of stress and paralysing fear regarding the safety of their loved ones. Following the news and learning about yet another town being attacked, another district being bombed or seeing another building in flames causes suffering beyond our comprehension.
Canadian Ukrainians, the second-largest Ukrainian diaspora globally, explain how they’re all in shock due to this “surreal experience”. They might physically be on a different continent. Yet, emotionally they are “over there”, in their homeland, struggling with a sense of powerlessness and relieving painful familial memories “marked by conflict, dispossession and exile”.
Mental Health Challenges of The Rest of The World:
On the other side, there is the whole world watching. We see the injustice, the suffering, the horror, and we care. People are concerned for the safety and wellbeing of the Ukrainian population. In moments of uncertainty and chaos, it’s only natural for us to stay up to date with the latest events, check the news and engage in endless scrolling of our social media feeds. Yet, it doesn’t help anyone. Here’s why:
Doomscrolling (the excessive consumption of negative news) is our attempt at coping with the stress we feel. Unfortunately, by trying to control what is outside of our control, we cause further damage. Doomscrolling:
- dysregulates our emotions,
- pushes us further down the anxiety-inducing spiral
- Impairs our judgment and clarity abilities
Most of all, doom scrolling only causes harm and does no good. Consuming such negative news depletes us of energy and leaves us feeling hopeless. We end up being unable to channel the obtained information into direct action.
Some things are out of our control, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nevertheless, we must not forget that it is well within our control to protect our mental health, support others and take action to help Ukraine.
War in Ukraine: How to Cope
Our needs differ depending on our situation. However, one thing remains the same:
To help others, you need to take care of yourself first. If you stretch yourself too thin, supporting others will no longer be possible as you’ll lead yourself to exhaustion. That is why fundamental self-care is crucial, especially in such difficult times. As a parent, a friend, a loved one, a family member or a romantic partner, try to keep your own needs in mind as well.
How To Cope: Ukrainian Diaspora
Nurture Your Family, Loved Ones & Community:
Counter the anxiety, stress or despair by engaging in social activities that foster human connection and closeness. Choose to maintain a line of communication with your loved ones. Take time to truly listen to others, recognise their struggle and empathise with them in a non-judgmental manner.
If you have children, nurture them by maintaining a sense of structure in their daily routines as it helps them feel more stable and safe. Remember that a coherent family life is one of the best ways to protect their mental wellbeing – and yours. Different studies consistently emphasise the importance of “parental presence in the forming of secure attachment and mental health of children” as well as “reducing the risk of mental disorders and promoting psychosocial functioning”.
Talking to others might help you:
- relieve your stress,
- formulate your thoughts into words, which fosters processing the difficult emotions you’re going through,
- understand your current emotional state.
Also, the act of being heard and seen by another person not only fosters bonding between you but also creates an opportunity for your emotions to be validated, no matter how complex or challenging they are.
If you have children, start a conversation with them as well. Remember that avoiding the subject of war will only bring them more anxiety. Try to make them feel as secure as possible.
Try to Understand Your Feelings:
Experiencing a mixture of anger, fear, despair, anxiety, or hopelessness is normal in such a situation. Allow yourself to process these confusing feelings. Open up to the pain and discomfort rather than avoid it. It may be incredibly uncomfortable, but it might be the starting point to accepting your suffering and embracing it.
Additionally, make sure not to turn such emotions against your family members. If the tension gets high, try to share your feelings respectfully and listen to what others have to say. Recognise the shared human experience in your pain.
How To Cope: The Rest of The World
Mindfully Consume Media:
Remember that the media build a story around reality to sell it to you, focusing on the most shocking, anxiety-inducing elements. Social media such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube have algorithms that curate the content you consume, putting you in a reactive posture rather than a mindful one. That’s why it’s so important to seek reliable sources when consuming media.
Set Healthy Boundaries:
Don’t reach for your phone as soon as you wake up.
Don’t read the news in your bed before you go to sleep.
Avoid doomscrolling at all costs.
Choose a specific moment in your day to stay up to date with the current events, most suitably in the afternoon. Make sure to set a time limit for your news check – preferably up to 30 minutes. Realise that you do not need more to stay informed.
Set healthy boundaries not only with yourself but also when talking to others. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or your anxiety spikes up, ask the person directly to change the topic. It’s not necessary or beneficial for us to be constantly focused on the events connected to war.
Maintain a Routine:
Attending to your fundamental needs sounds obvious; however, it can still be difficult in times of distress. If possible, make sure to eat well, rest, spend time outside and connect to others. Try engaging in mindful activities that will keep you focused in the present moment and take your mind off the depressing thoughts, such as swimming, running, walking your dog or creating art. Sticking to such a routine offers a piece of stability in uncertain, chaotic times.
Finally, the best thing we all can do is fight the feelings of helplessness by getting involved as much as we can in supporting Ukrainians.
1) If you have Ukrainian friends, reach out to them, ask how you can help and offer a safe space for them. Even better, propose tangible ways to support them, such as taking over one of their daily responsibilities.
2) Volunteer to host Ukrainian refugees. Rebuilding life in a new place is unimaginably challenging. Do your best to make them feel as much “at home” as possible.
3) Join a protest and voice your support. Click here to find the nearest demonstration to your location.
4) Stay informed and support independent journalism such as The Kyiv Independent.
5)Make a donation (there’s many organisations out there you can donate to, here are a few to start with):
a. United Nations Population Fund (Support Women and Girls Impacted by the conflict in Ukraine)
b. Save the Children (Support for Children and Families in Ukraine)
d. International Rescue Committee (Providing help to refugees)
If you don’t have the money, you can look for local places to give blood or food, clothing, medical equipment etc. Here is a list of amazing charities and organisations to support: