Trigger warning: This article provides details of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war that may be traumatic for some people.
Insight / by Dr Viktor Vus
Life has changed in so many ways for us, the Ukrainian people. We have lost the many basic comforts of our lives and our houses, while our beliefs, our opinions, and our attitudes toward living have all changed dramatically. We are fearful of potential nuclear war, and the current war that could, if it continues to escalate, affect people around the world.
As an academic, I view the effects in multiple dimensions. Through personal research, I know the shock and uncertainty Ukrainians are facing; the changes they are experiencing in their psychological wellbeing that have come about from an uncertain existence. At the same time, my everyday life has evolved into something that doesn’t feel real. Immense traffic jams as people flee their homes, people clad in military gear and weapons walking on the streets, explosions and alarms urging us to take shelter from an imminent threat. And we don’t know when any of this will end.
A mental burden we all bear
The Ukrainian people have acted with an extraordinary resilience though. Voluntary organisations have formed quickly to help, some providing defence and patrolling neighbourhoods, while others have set up mental health hotlines to provide people with much needed psychological support. Many of those volunteering have been misplaced – thousands of people who have been forced to leave their homes, their jobs, and their lives behind are offering to support millions of people just like them.
It's hard for many of us to comprehend the immense psychological strength these efforts take. I spent time volunteering at the very beginning of this war, helping those fleeing their homes to find a place to go. On that day, our team met an estimated 35,000 refugees who all needed shelter. But our social infrastructure simply wasn’t built for such a crisis; the organisational skills simply didn’t and don’t exist. We are left with a situation of not being able to help people who are in dire need. Yes, we can provide food and clothes, but where can people go?
For those that do make it to a refugee shelter, life now consists of living in a shared space with others. Often these spaces are massively over-populated, some housing thousands of people. The smells, lack of oxygen, and external noises all present discomforts, while a lack of structure brings its own psychological burden. People now have no purpose. They simply wait for mealtimes while digesting information that further aggravates their stress during their free time.
Worse still, outdated stigmas get in the way of them receiving help. In Ukraine, when you offer psychological support, many people hear the prefix ‘psych’ and immediately shut down any avenues of discussion. They don’t want to be thought of as having ‘mental disorders’ or mentally ‘ill’. They simply will not accept the help you can offer them.
Diversification of reality
The shock of this war is not being felt by everyone in the same way. A phenomenon called ‘diversification of reality’ is currently at play, creating individual narratives to something that from the outside looks like it could only ever exist in one form.
Ukrainians living in war-affected areas of the country, for example, are experiencing something very different to those living in unaffected cities or towns. These different perspectives are more damaging to societal attitudes than you might think. Those who have lived under imminent threat will be dealing with extreme stress and potential post-traumatic stress disorder, while those who haven’t been directly affected will likely be dealing with less severe psychological distress.
Ultimately this means that when refugees from affected areas relocate and settle in unaffected areas, it is difficult for both parties to understand each other. A directly affected refugee may for example feel resentment toward the unaffected, while the unaffected will likely struggle to comprehend or empathise with the affected.
And this isn’t just between strangers: the same goes for families. Husbands or fathers who have been called up to fight will be dealing with entirely different scenarios and emotions to their loved ones. Their loved ones may be living in shelters which, as I described, may mean they are living in extreme discomfort. Men on the front line may also be feeling extreme distress but in a different way. When these family members meet again, their understanding of each other has forever been transformed and may never recover.
With all this happening, you are also met with something that war very quickly creates: societal division. You are either an ally or an enemy, and many refugees who aren’t Ukrainian are met with a new-found patriotism from natives who see them as ‘outsiders’. This tension, combined with the fact that personal, financial, and social needs are already severely unmet for many refugees, leads to emotional burnout for everyone involved.
Societal division is further stoked by a curious means. Due to a lack of wanting to face reality, a willingness to close oneself off from the trauma of war, people turn toward any possible method of distraction. Currently, this tends to be television or social media.
With little else to do, people begin to consume this media in large quantities, allowing for a unique characteristic to blossom among society: a virtualisation of expertise. As people consume more and more media related to the war, they begin to believe themselves to be experts on what is happening. This becomes a problem if their sources are biased to present a specific version of events. This leads to a variety of experts with a variety of different perspectives on the war, many of whom struggle to comprehend the perspectives of others, leading to societal tension and bitterness.
The will to carry on
You would think it would be easy for individuals to collapse under such a hefty psychological weight. But humans are strong. And I can tell you first hand that this particularly applies the proud people of Ukraine.
I have witnessed people arrive at a refugee shelter after an 18-hour journey on a packed train where they have had to stand for the entire time. The scenes many of them have witnessed and the basic comforts they have been denied are inconceivable to the rest of us. Even as I helped them with their bags, guided their children to a safe place, and reassured them that they were safe, my imagination could never fully understand their trauma.
And yet, even in the face of the psychological scars they now undoubtedly bear, they continue to seek to survive.
Even with a fierce will to survive, the people of Ukraine need mental health support now more than ever. And that’s why a team of fellow psychologists and I are in the process of developing a method of allowing people to provide others with mental assurance. A kind of ‘horizontal diplomacy’ that lets people from around the world to act as a virtual shoulder to lean on for the people in Ukraine who have been affected by this war. Because together we can help each other, and together we can make a difference.
We've collated resources to help anyone mentally affected by the war in Ukraine. You can access them here.