• Kate Maurer

Mental Health and the War in Ukraine



It’s very important to me as a therapist to be real with my clients. In keeping with that value, I will say that I do not personally have it all figured out when it comes to events in Ukraine right now. I am not in a state of perfect coping with my sadness, anger, sense of helplessness, and fear about what might happen, and I don’t know if I’m getting the balance between being an informed citizen and a well person right. I’m trying, like many of us are. I’m going to fill this post with less advice to follow and more questions to ask yourself, as well as a little bit of information. Sometimes the right questions can help.

Firstly, if you are Ukrainian and/or have loved ones in Ukraine right now, you may be in the middle of an ongoing traumatic experience. Treat yourself accordingly, with care, patience, and protection. Overwhelming emotions or feelings of shock or numbness are common during a traumatic experience. It may not be the time to process, come to terms, or make sense of things yet. For you the most important question may be, What do I need right now? Connect with supportive people around you, take things one day at a time, and do what you need to get through this and keep yourself safe. Contact a crisis line (in central Illinois, 217-359-4141) or see a mental health provider if you need one. If you are Russian, or have loved ones at risk in Russia because they are opposing the invasion, you may also be affected more directly and need support.


For many of us, there is more separation from the situation in Ukraine, but it is still difficult. Sadness, anger, worry and anxiety, even heartbreak and anguish are normal human experiences in response to stories and images emerging from the war zone and uncertainty about the future. We are wired for empathy and righteously worried about where these events could lead.


Exposure to disturbing and heartbreaking images and stories can also build to the point of causing more significant mental health issues. The term vicarious trauma has been used to reflect the mental health toll on those who work with traumatized people, and at times others who closely identify with traumatic experiences of others. Exposure to images and stories of trauma can also be triggering for those with their own trauma histories. Signs that secondary exposure to violence is taking a toll on your mental health include depressed mood, persistent hopelessness, social withdrawal, emotional numbing, irritability, persistent anxiety, feeling “on edge” (hypervigilance), sleep disturbance, nightmares, and new or increased use of alcohol or drugs to cope. If you’re experiencing these things, you probably need to make changes to support your mental health, and should reach out to a therapist if you need.


Self-care and managing our exposure can help prevent mental health problems from vicarious trauma. Here are some questions to ask yourself during this time:


-What am I feeling right now, and why? Putting words to your emotions can help, either to yourself or to a friend, loved one, or other support.

-What centers and calms me? Is that your family, time spent in nature, your faith, meditation, connecting with or expressing your core values, preparing a meal, movement, art? What have you returned to in hard times in the past? What brings you to the place you are now and gives you a sense of safety, allowing you to rest and recover emotionally?

-What is one meaningful thing I can do? This might be directly related to the invasion, such as donating to a relief organization, advocating for action by a legislator or company, or attending a support rally, but it could also be a way of showing compassion or addressing suffering or injustice elsewhere, where you might have more direct ability to make a difference.

-How much media am I consuming and why? Is your news and social media consumption building your understanding and ability to be present for the world situation, or eroding your ability to be strong and well? If it’s the latter, take steps to limit your scrolling. Limiting screen time can also open opportunities for grounding and calming activities. For example, I turn on a setting called “focus mode” on my phone most of the time that blocks access to my news apps. When I want to use them, I switch focus mode off for a predetermined amount of time, so that I’m cut off after 15 or 30 minutes.

Finding resilience helps us keep ourselves healthy and able to show up for others. Caring for yourself builds resilience, and is part of navigating the complicated and sometimes frightening world we live in. Make it a priority, and contact Bodhi Counseling if you need our help.


Resources:

Champaign-Urbana area mental health crisis line 217-359-4141


Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


War in Ukraine mental health resources from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress

Talking to Children About War, resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Bodhi Counseling & Consulting

University of Illinois Ukrainian student organization is hosting fundraisers and events to support Ukraine.

This article from NPR lists some aid organizations working in Ukraine.

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