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The mental health fallout of a war we didn’t ask for: An insight into the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Image of wooden block with words 'Never give up Ukraine' painted on it
Yura Khomitskyi / Unsplash

Trigger warning: This article provides details of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war that may be traumatic for some people.

Insight by Elena Vysotskaya

Five o’clock in the morning, the people of Kyiv began to wake to the sound of bombs and the cracks of anti-aircraft equipment. I, like many of my fellow citizens, immediately found myself in a state of shock. The Russian invasion had begun.

Despite the recent conflicts in Eastern Ukraine, which since 2014 has seen Russian troops present in parts of Ukraine that were desperate for independence – primarily parts of the Donbas region – an invasion was still not something we expected. And especially not one that came from the direction of Belarus – a country we consider far more than just a neighbour, more like a very close friend.

The initial shock was replaced by panic, as people began to snap out of the fight-flight-freeze response and instead began to flee. Our roads quickly filled with traffic of people fleeing their homes in search of safety.

Foundational needs

As a psychologist, the sheer amount of stress I felt myself meant that I knew there were now thousands of people in my city desperately in need of some sort of psychological support. We began to act swiftly to do exactly that, delivering pro bono services through hotlines and websites for people seeking help. International organisations chipped in too, providing support for Ukrainians abroad as well as asking me if they could help in some way.

Their support has been invaluable to the people of Ukraine who not only have been through acute stress, but their most fundamental needs have been compromised. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed the ‘hierarchy of needs’ as a depiction of human motivation. At the very bottom of that hierarchy are physiological needs like air, water, and food. One level above that are safety needs, including our health and emotional, financial and personal safety.

These are the two most basic groups of needs for humans to survive. And on 24th February, these needs were no longer met for millions of people across Ukraine.

Without our basic needs met, it can be very difficult to think about anything else. We are fixed in a state of high alert as we try to find safety in order to survive. Everything else becomes secondary, including our emotional control. This means that we struggle to react ‘correctly’, often resulting in anger and frustration.

Generational impact

The problem is that being in a state like this can last for a long time. Even for people who have moved away from areas of conflict, they will continue to be experiencing emotional instability. This means symptoms of shock, anxiety, and stress will remain high for some time after the start of this war.

In fact, for many, the symptoms will continue for years, and for some, these symptoms will continue for decades or even the rest of their lives. When you experience a severe loss of control like they have, it can be hard to move away from a mindset where you don’t expect something similar to happen again. Living like that is exhausting, leading many toward a reclusive life. Combine that with an ongoing anxiety and potential flashbacks to the experience and you can only imagine the turmoil this creates for someone’s future.

This is particularly an issue for children. For those that have witnessed such intense emotional trauma, this war will shape the people they become.

Relationships torn apart. Some, for good

As a therapist, I am presented with stories of heartbreak and anguish every day. But one of the saddest stories I’ve heard has come from this war.

A young lady explained to me the close relationship she had with her sister. They were so close, they would talk twice a day. But this war has torn their relationship apart, potentially forever. And it comes down to something that often goes unnoticed during times of conflict: a difference in realities.

The lady lives in Ukraine, while her sister lives in Russia. In Ukraine, this conflict is seen as an invasion, a needless, unwanted act of war that we never wanted to happen. But in Russia, this war is being described as a something akin to a rescue operation – they are helping us find peace.

This lady has tried to explain the perspective of the Ukrainian people to her sister, but her sister refuses to believe her. They’ve gone from speaking twice a day to not speaking at all. They may never get their relationship back.

On its own, this story is difficult to hear, but an even harder reality to accept is that it won’t be in isolation. There are many families split between Ukraine and Russia, each of whom will be faced with the same jeopardy of polarised realities that they now have to navigate.

Moving forward

With everything we are going though, there is one thing you can rely on when it comes to Ukrainian people: we will fight.

For almost 2 months, our country has continued to push back against the Russian invasion through our fierce passion to remain an independent, democratic country. We love our country the way it is.

I’ve already seen that many Ukrainians are using the same attitude to deal with the mental health consequences of this war. There are so many voluntary initiatives that have sprung up since that day in February started by people trying to support each other and deal with the fallout of this war. And of course we are seeing so much support from abroad – people donating to charities and sending messages of reassurance while governments have kindly taken in our refugees. The support has been truly incredible and invaluable.

My only hope is that soon, we won’t need your support at all and we can return to living a peaceful life in the country that we love.


If you would like to support efforts in Ukraine, here are some links you may find useful:

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