Ukraine: The Trauma of War

Experts warn children are experiencing huge psychological distress as a result of the conflict.

Ukraine: The Trauma of War

Experts warn children are experiencing huge psychological distress as a result of the conflict.

A distraught family at Lviv train station.
A distraught family at Lviv train station. © Oleksandr Solonenko
Thursday, 28 April, 2022

Angelina, 13, first learned that Russian had invaded Ukraine at 6.45 am on February 24, when her friends began messaging and calling her in panic.

"She ran to me in tears and cried that she didn't want to die. ‘Mum, I'm only 13 years old, I want to live, please do something and get me out of here,’" her mother, 36-year-old Alina, recalled. “It turned out that the war had been going on for three hours as we had been sleeping. This is how a new and shocking reality dawned on us.”

Alina and her daughter left their home in Kyiv for the relatively safe city of Lviv in western Ukraine, but the fears have travelled with them.

“The child still runs away to the basement with each siren,” Alina continued. “At night, she hears almost every rustle, because she is sure that Russian saboteurs are walking around the apartment. She covers herself with a blanket, shakes with fear and holds my hand. And when she learned about the brutal violence of the occupiers in Bucha, she was afraid to be left alone in a room, and couldn’t stop talking about how they killed and raped ten-year-old children.”

Specialists warn that the war has already caused an enormous amount of psychological trauma, especially amongst children, young people and the elderly.

Alina Kasilova, a 27-year-old clinical psychologist and child-parent psychotherapist in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, has worked with victims of violence for the past eight years.

"War is the collapse of everything"

She said that since the Russian invasion began, the demand for her consultations has soared. In the last six weeks, 170 people had sought psychological help from her, and she provides online consultations daily from 9 am until the evening.

"Everyone lives the war differently, but everyone feels stressed,” she said. “People have been deprived of a sense of security, one of their main needs. In addition, it’s very difficult for them to stabilize their resources in conditions of a complete lack of control, and this is also a great burden on the psyche.”

Kasilova stressed that it was normal for people to have a wide variety of reactions to the same events.

"The war has affected children’s psyche the most,” she continued. “They do not understand what is happening and for them, the issue of death has intensified. Especially for three to four year-olds, who only learn at this age that everyone will die, they are very worried about it, and these emotions are now very strong. Hence the increase in aggression and hyperactivity - they themselves often do not understand what is happening.”

Often, physical injury is accompanied by emotional trauma.

Anastasia Bolva, a 31-year-old from Chernihiv, said that her nine-year-old son Danylo had been changed beyond recognition. During shelling on March 18, he sustained a very serious injury to his right eye.

Bolva recalled how her son, covered in blood, cried and called out for her again and again until he was anesthetised at the hospital.

“I was afraid that something would happen to me and he would be left all alone,” she added.

On March 23, the family was able to leave Chernihiv for Vinnytsia, where they now live. Danylo has undergone two complex operations, but doctors cannot guarantee that he will ever be able to see again.

Bolva said that her son had become consumed by anxiety, and constantly asked for reassurance from his parents and siblings. She said that her son urgently needed expert psychological treatment.

“He became prone to sudden mood swings - he plays calmly, then in anger and aggression scatters everything around,” the mother continued. “This has never happened to him before.”

With demand for treatment rising, many platforms and providers are treating people for free.

One online platform, Rozkazhy meny, provides Ukrainians with free psychological assistance around the clock. Another Telegam channel links those in need with mental health professionals, while a group of Ukrainian psychotherapists are donating both face-to-face and online consultations.

Kasilova noted that older people were also vulnerable to psychological distress given the uncertainty of war.

"For the elderly, war is the collapse of everything,” she said. “Everything they gained was lost in one minute. This is an extremely strong crisis for them.”

The reports of rape committed by Russian soldiers had also caused immense distress among survivors of earlier abuse.

“Retraumatisation of women who have previously suffered from sexual violence has also increased sharply,” Kasilova said, adding that that one patient, now 18, had experienced abuse as a minor and was only now ready to talk about it.

“Against the background of events, photos and information, they are reliving their experience.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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