How the War in Ukraine Is Affecting the Mental Health of Survivors

Ukrainian Father With Kids Sits In Bomb Shelter

Mariia Symchych-Navrotska / EyeEm / Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainians are experiencing mental health struggles dealing with the trauma of war.
  • Fear, anxiety, and depression are prevailing emotions, but so are grief and even survivor’s guilt.
  • Therapists can provide virtual sessions to Ukrainians, while others can continue to donate to relief organizations.

Millions of people living in Ukraine had to flee their homes after Russia invaded the country in February. They left behind everything they’ve ever known. Thousands have been killed and injured, including children. Daily pictures and video of atrocities suffered in Ukraine are splashed across the media.

The atrocities seem unimaginable—and those pictures alone are traumatic enough. Living in constant fear while struggling to find some measure of safety and security has taken a toll on Ukrainians’ mental health.

Andrew Kent, MD

Their sense of identity has been stripped without any ability to prepare for it. This can cause depression and anxiety and make people feel lost.

— Andrew Kent, MD

“Their sense of identity has been stripped without any ability to prepare for it. This can cause depression and anxiety and make people feel lost,” states Andrew Kent, MD, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in working with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Their entire world was turned upside down overnight.”

Attention is given to their immediate needs for food, clothing, and housing—and rightfully so. However, the lack of ability to focus on mental health is exacting a heavy toll. As Ukrainians deal with being ripped away from their homes and families, as well as the trauma of death and injury, their mental health needs to be a priority for citizens now, and for future generations.

The Mental Health Impact

Katerina Manoff was living her childhood dream. Her family immigrated to the United States from Kyiv when she was a child, but she always longed to give back to her Ukrainian community. She founded a nonprofit, ENGin, to help Ukrainian youth improve their English-speaking skills. Things were going well. And then the war hit.

Although Katerina’s life is in the United States, her work team, several family members, and the students she’s helping, are in Ukraine. They send pictures of devastation and destruction. She’s had to send money for them to stay in hotels since they fled their homes. It has taken a toll.

“For me it’s been so hard. There’s a lot of hopelessness. There’s this frustration also that people in Ukraine feel,” Manoff explains. “In the very beginning people were shocked, but they were hopeful, they were determined…We felt like we were getting this support form the whole world,” she says.

That optimism soon turned to despair.

Katerina Manoff

As the war went on, our mental health [started] really suffering...I have seen so many dead bodies and disfigured bodies.

— Katerina Manoff

“As the war went on, our mental health [started] really suffering. You see these horrible atrocities; you see these photos,” Manoff notes. “Our friends send us the photos that don’t even make it to the big media outlets. I have seen so many dead bodies and disfigured bodies, and just so many dead kids.”

Ukrainians are grappling with a multitude of emotions at once.

“It’s a grief reaction but it’s complicated by the sense that there is also fear for your own safety. It’s one thing to grieve when you lose someone to a natural cause but now you are also fearing for your other loved ones and for your home. It makes it a very complicated bereavement,” Dr. Kent explains.

Katerina says she also grapples with survivor’s guilt, which is common among those who have lived through traumatic situations where others lost their lives.

While Ukraine and other countries have dealt with conflict before, experts say the current war with Russia has a different impact.

“Trauma is trauma; however, the difference here is your entire life and home is at risk. It’s all-encompassing. You aren’t just grieving a person; you are grieving your entire existence. You also have to deal with the anger that these are senseless deaths caused by an aggressor,” Dr. Kent notes.

The effects of that anger are far-reaching.

Impact on Future Generations

It’s hard enough for an adult to try to cope with the brutality of war. For a child, the impact is immeasurable. Research shows that children who’ve lived through war and conflict suffer a high level of psychological problems.

Kids are trying to navigate their new world without the safety and stability of a home, school, or any measure of structure. The burden of living through war creates mental health scars that will continue to follow them.

“There will actually be physical changes to the brain of a child after trauma that effect impulse, anxiety, and emotional regulation. This gets passed onto the next generation in how these children will grow up and parent,” says Dr. Kent. “A lot of these children will struggle to have basic emotional needs met, by no fault of the family, because everyone is just trying to survive.”

Providing Help

The majority of people who need help for mental health care worldwide don’t receive the services that could help them. In a situation where they have been uprooted and are in search of safety and security, it is even more difficult to access mental health care.

The internet can be a start. Therapists can provide services virtually to give Ukrainians ways to cope with the trauma they’re experiencing. If you are a mental health professional willing to provide services, seek out organizations helping with relief efforts in Ukraine.

Even if you can’t provide therapy, you can help by giving to relief organizations. Bringing a measure of stability to Ukrainians’ lives by making a donation can help ease some mental stress.

Manoff says she draws strength from being able to be a voice for Ukrainians and the horrors they experience. She also continues to donate her time, finances, and mental and emotional support. Ultimately, she wants Ukrainians to have access to the care that they need and recommends offering it to them in a way that removes stigma and normalizes taking care of their mental health.

“Make it a part of your standard package—I have my food, I have my shelter, I have my medical care, and I have my psychological care,” Manoff concludes.

What This Means For You

Most Americans see the images of the death and devastation in Ukraine in the media, but don’t have to experience it every day. Exercising understanding and empathy for what Ukrainians are experiencing, and providing support and donations, can help make a difference in their lives to get the help they need.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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