Mental health crisis grips Ukraine as war with Russia continues

13 dec., 2023

Ukraine is in the grip of a mental health crisis with a large majority of people in the nation at war showing signs of mental health issues for which they may need to seek psychological help, according to Ukraine’s health minister.

“According to the latest surveys … we already see that 90% of Ukrainians have at least one of the symptoms that leads to the need for psychological help,” Health Minister Viktor Liashko said in an interview with a Ukrainian news outlet.

The minister’s comments on World Mental Health Day in October spotlighted a growing crisis nearly two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. At times, the situation is stretching Ukraine’s medical resources to breaking point. 

Tetyana Sirenko, the Deputy Director of the psychological department at the Lisova Poliana Mental Health and Rehabilitation Center in Pushcha-Vodytsia in the Kyiv region, says that a majority of Ukrainians have experienced high levels of stress due to the war, which has caused widespread deterioration in their mental well-being. 

“Some people are already developing an acute reaction to stress or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Sirenko told Context. Those symptoms, she said, can range from panic attacks to states of hyper-arousal and a constant state of alert, when someone is constantly “living in anticipation of something terrible happening.”

Ukraine’s healthcare system has been under severe strain amid the war with 177 medical facilities being destroyed and more than 1,400 damaged, a situation exacerbated by a significant increase in patient demand. Medical workers are also at risk.

“Before the large-scale invasion, we had a 50% patient occupancy rate. Today we have 100% occupancy and sometimes 110%,” she added. “Exacerbating the issue is that as the war drags on and more people require medical care, more medical workers are also suffering from exhaustion due to a lack of resources,” said Sirenko.

According to a survey carried out by Gradus Research, a Ukrainian market and sociological research company, three-quarters of Ukrainian children are showing signs and symptoms of mental trauma.

Indeed, many Ukrainian children have witnessed bombings, and the deaths of relatives and many have been separated from their parents or caregivers, Halyna Skipalska, the executive director of the Ukrainian Foundation for Public Health, told Context. 

“Children experience war very hard, they are constantly ready to run away and hide,” she said. “Just imagine a 14-year-old boy from Kherson, after a rocket attack, stopping the bleeding by bandaging his grandmother’s wounds on his own, and performing CPR on his aunt. This teenager experienced a very strong shock”.

She added that millions of children also left the country after the war started and are struggling to adapt to their new lives in the countries to which they fled. The war has deprived millions of them of normal birthday celebrations, time with family, and their favourite toys.

„We are often approached by mothers who are concerned about changes in their children’s behaviour, such as lethargy, deterioration of immunity, anxiety, and various (physical) pains,” said Skipalska. “When we delve deeper into the problems … it turns out that not only the child but also the mother has experienced trauma.”

Daria Melnyk, a practicing psychologist and art therapist, says that the mental health crisis has also led to an increase in people developing somatic diseases, which are manifested by symptoms such as pain, weakness, and muscle aches.

“Among the psychosomatic symptoms that people come to us with are increased heartbeat, high blood pressure, headaches, blurred vision, weakness, muscle tension, inability to relax, and appetite problems,” she said. “Many adults and children even have suicidal thoughts.”

The psychologist noted that even psychosomatic symptoms can be debilitating for patients and that they require treatment like any other illness. 

„We worked with a pensioner whose legs gave out due to severe stress. At first, doctors helped her recover physiologically, and then we started psychological therapy,” she said. „Communication helps a lot because many people are lonely.”

„Post-traumatic stress disorder has a peculiarity that it can take more than 6 months, or even more than a year, for symptoms to appear,” she added.

The mental health crisis is impacting people all across Ukraine, even in regions that have not seen significant fighting. For war veterans, the challenges of returning to civilian life after the war ends could also be difficult and complex.

“A person returns from war completely differently, it is often hard for war veterans to communicate with civilians,” said Melnyk, the psychologist, and noted that: “Military personnel who have returned from captivity often suffer from guilt.”

Despre autor: Alina Okolot

Avatar of Alina Okolot
Alina Okolot este o jurnalistă ucraineană din Kiev care lucrează în presă din 2017. Alina a lucrat ca reporter TV în departamentul de știri al canalului PravdaTut TV unde a documentat știri din sectoare diverse, de la politic la economic, cultură și sport. Ea a lucrat de asemenea ca editor de programe educaționale și de divertisment pentru canalul Kiev TV și pentru ediția online a Adevărului de Irpin. Alina spune că jurnalismul este vocația sa. Ea s-a alăturat echipei CONTEXT, după ce s-a mutat în România. Ca jurnalist, ea se ocupă de investigarea crimelor de război comise de Rusia în Ucraina, țara sa natală. Ea scrie des despre corupție și documentează poveștile martorilor în subiecte legate de război. Țelul Alinei este să arate lumii adevărul printr-un jurnalism de calitate.

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