The wounds of war are not just physical. Nearly ten months of conflict has had a devastating toll on the mental health of the Ukrainian people. As winter sets in and attacks on power and heating infrastructure escalate, the stress, fear and anxiety placed upon people is creating an urgent need for mental health support.
Since the conflict began, there have been over 15,000 casualties, 7 million have fled the country and 6.9 million are internally displaced. The trauma experienced by the population, if left unaddressed, could lead to a devastating legacy impacting generations to come.
In response, UK-Med has set up a mental health service to support those people suffering from the trauma of war. Bringing together psychologists, community health workers, and trainers, the objective is to reduce suffering and improve the mental health and psychological well-being of Ukrainians.
Here, we speak to Flora Boirin Fargues, UK-Med psychologist and manager of the mental health service who explains “Whether we are supporting internally displaced people, health staff, or the general population, the message we hear is the same: people are struggling and need the space to talk. This is the starting point to healing” says Flora “someone else is holding my story, so I’m no longer the only one carrying it”.
Mental health during conflict
The experiences of people will differ greatly “there are people who are taking to the road and those who are staying. The long-term effects will be incredibly different for each group.” About the situation on the ground, Flora says “We are seeing more suicide attempts in the west and at the border. People in warzones (feel like they) need to toughen up and become more resilient, whereas people who leave can often be more vulnerable. We are seeing more reckless behavior and use of drugs among people who have stayed.”
There are clear differences in the demographics of people in each area of Ukraine. Those in the east are mainly older, as the younger population has left. This means the mental health struggles they face are compounded by age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Healthcare facilities and many humanitarian organisations are centralized, so the population in remote areas have less access to support services.
Mental health stigma
Flora and her team are working in a context where mental health care is highly stigmatized. People are reluctant to access mental health services due to the stigma and shame associated with seeking mental health support. Moreover, “There is a lack of awareness around mental health as part of health in general; common negative coping strategies are alcohol use and medication, which don’t tackle the root causes of people’s struggles”.
Health care staff stretched to the limits
It is not just civilians who need our help explains Flora, “Frontline workers are exposed to considerable trauma, higher workloads, longer working hours and relentless stress. Therefore, they are at high risk of burnout and other stress related problems”. That is why it is so important to find a solution that focuses on mental health for healthcare staff who work in conflict areas and for people who have fled their home.
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