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Opinion: The secret scars of Ukraine's mental health crisis

January 15, 2024 6:12 PM 5 min read
David Kirichenko
David Kirichenko
Freelance journalist
Ukrainian refugees cross the border from Ukraine into Hungary in Zahony, Hungary, on March 2, 2022. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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As Ukraine endures the ravages of Russia's full-scale invasion, the impact extends far beyond the physical destruction of its cities and the displacement of its people. A silent but equally devastating crisis is unfolding: the severe deterioration of the mental health of the Ukrainian population in wartime.

A recent survey by the sociological group Rating reveals a striking shift in the mindset of Ukrainians amid Russia’s ongoing invasion and the uncertainty of the future. As of Dec. 1, approximately half of the population now refrains from making long-term plans, a significant increase from previous years. Only 12% now look years ahead, a decline from 19% just a year ago. Short-term planning is more prevalent, with 15% planning six to 12 months ahead and 22% only a few months into the future.

The tendency to make long-term plans is more common among Kyiv residents, the young, the middle-aged, and those with higher incomes. In contrast, 60% of respondents believe it is necessary to restrict non-essential spending and entertainment during wartime, a sentiment shared mainly by residents of western regions and older or less affluent individuals. Thirty-six percent of respondents believe it is important to live life to the fullest with this opinion being most shared by Kyiv residents, people from Ukraine's liberated territories, and younger and wealthier individuals.

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Safety perceptions vary, with 80% feeling safe in their locality. However, this sentiment is less common among city dwellers and those in front-line or recently liberated areas. The survey, conducted between Nov. 22 and 23, included 1,000 respondents over 18 from all regions of Ukraine, excluding occupied territories.

The mental toll of Russia's invasion on Ukrainians is profound. In June 2022, Health Minister Viktor Liashko predicted that around 15 million Ukrainians would need psychological support, with up to 4 million requiring medical treatment. The World Health Organization (WHO) also found that 1 in 5 Ukrainians couldn’t get the medication they needed; cost, availability, and long queues at local pharmacies are the top three reasons.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has led to significant territorial occupation, destruction of homes, and one of the largest migration crises this century. Over 6 million Ukrainians are estimated to be internally displaced, and about 17% of Ukrainians have lost contact with friends or relatives.

In cities like Dnipro and Kyiv, it is common to find refugees from the war zone asking for help. Those who fled to western Ukraine speak to the extremely high rent prices due to high demand, and government aid doesn’t help much. Those registered as internally displaced people (IDPs) can receive a monthly allowance of UAH 2,000 ($52.77) per adult and UAH 3,000 ($79.15) per child from the program that was created by the government.

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The challenges within Ukraine extend beyond physical dangers. Financial hardships are widespread, with 78% reporting reduced incomes and a third losing jobs due to the war. Consumer prices surged by 20% in 2022, and missile strikes on energy infrastructure have disrupted daily life and work.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has also significantly impacted the nation's healthcare infrastructure, particularly affecting mental health services. In 2022, there were 707 documented attacks on Ukrainian health care facilities, resulting in significant destruction of or damage to 218 hospitals and clinics, along with 181 attacks on other medical infrastructure, such as pharmacies and dentistry.

This crisis in healthcare is set against a backdrop of long-standing distrust in mental health services in Ukraine, a legacy of the Soviet era when the psychiatric system was used to oppress dissidents and enemies of the state. A 2021 study revealed that 75% of Ukrainian adults perceived psychiatric hospitals as prison-like rather than therapeutic environments. This perception presents a significant challenge in encouraging people to seek necessary mental health treatment.

The impact of the war extends beyond physical damage, as it profoundly traumatizes Ukrainian society and threatens to affect future generations. The destruction of infrastructure and economic downturn complicates access to quality mental health services, a critical issue as the country grapples with the widespread societal trauma caused by the war.

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In having conversations with ordinary Ukrainians, many have expressed concern about the post-war period, especially regarding the return of veterans. Without robust mental healthcare services, there is widespread worry about the challenges these veterans may face in reintegrating into their communities and dealing with PTSD from the war.

Furthermore, the war has placed immense mental strain on soldiers and volunteers at the front line, many of whom struggle with maintaining family connections during wartime. A common narrative among these men and women is the departure of their spouses and children to safer locations abroad. Over time, these families often adapt to life in their new countries, with children assimilating and over time, they no longer identify Ukraine as their home anymore. This separation and the fear of return, especially to areas constantly under missile strikes, adds a significant mental burden to Ukrainians.

The full-scale invasion has magnified Ukraine's pre-existing challenges and introduced larger societal issues. The collective impact of population displacement, healthcare infrastructure destruction, and economic hardships contributes significantly to the deteriorating mental health of the society. Ukrainians' reluctance to plan for the future reflects the deep psychological impact of the war, which there is no end in sight for now.

Nonetheless, Ukrainian resilience knows no limits, and the people will endure whatever it takes for the cause of victory, as the sacrifices being made are endless for its people.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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