Czech organizations are providing psychological help to Ukrainian refugees, but the needs are great.
Like many refugees, 39-year-old Anna Savchenko still trembles at the thought that a Russian bomb could destroy her home at any moment, months after she fled Kiev to escape the war.
“Your condition is constantly changing. One minute you are accepting the situation and the next you are crying. You understand that everyone wants to go home, but it’s very dangerous,” Savchenko said.
After crossing into Poland, Savchenko and her three children ended up in Klatovy, a small town in the Czech Republic, where they found a refugee aid center and met Yuliia Zahurska, a Ukrainian psychologist.
Although Savchenko was lucky enough to receive help from Zahurska, experts fear many are struggling without such help as they prioritize immediate needs like food and shelter over mental health.
The UN refugee agency reports that more than 6 million refugees from Ukraine are spread across Europe, with International Organization for Migration (IOM) director-general Antonio Vitorino expecting up to 30% to experience problems. of mental health that may worsen as a result of the war. continues.
Experts report this as an emerging mental health crisis. The World Health Organization considers mental health a “very high risk” category for Ukrainian refugees, meaning it can “result in high levels of excess mortality/morbidity.”
The situation for the Ukrainians was far from ideal even before hostilities began. A 2017 study by researchers from Ukraine, Great Britain and Georgia found that 74% of 2,203 Ukrainians did not get the mental health care they might have sought due to limited awareness of where to access care, the stigma of presenting their problems and fear from inability to afford care.
Petr Moravec, the director of Ledovec — the Czech mental health nonprofit that hired Zahurska to work with refugees — recalls being told he needs to choose the right words when offering support to Ukrainians because of the cultural stigma surrounding mental health.
“People from Ukraine are not used to seeking help from a therapist and they think that help is only for people with very serious illnesses,” explained Moravec.
Yale Institute for Global Health, in a detailed case study, concluded, “Ukraine carries a high burden of mental illness with a particularly high prevalence of depression compared to other countries. Mental disorders are the second leading cause of disability burden in the country… and are estimated to affect 30% of the population.” As mentioned above, the IOM and many other experts see the situation worsening since the invasion.
People in Need, one of the largest Czech charities operating in Ukraine, also provides psychological assistance to Ukrainian refugees. Olena Kravtsova, originally from Ukraine, has worked as a psychologist for the organization since 2015 and now helps coordinate their counseling activities in Ukraine. In a commentary published on the organization’s website, it noted that the number of calls to its hotline for Ukrainians in need of psychological help had increased by 73% since the beginning of the occupation.
The most vulnerable children
Zahurska and others explain this children tend to be the most traumatized group as they deal with the effects of living in a war zone, the difficulties of integrating into an unfamiliar culture if they run away from home, and the uncertainty of the future at such a young age.
“The five to six-year-old age group I met were the most vulnerable. Based on my experience, boys and girls seemed to come with different reactions: boys showed aggression, while girls were apathetic and lost their appetite. Art therapy works very well for children,” said Zahurska.
A group of students at the Prague Institute of Architecture agreed with this approach and started weekly art and architecture workshops for Ukrainian refugee children called Udesign.
One of the mentors at Udesign, Ketevan Gogodze, works with the group of 11 to 15 year olds and gave them a task to make postcards of cities.
“Some of the children express their pain through their artwork. In one of the workshops, two girls worked Ukrainian cities on fire, “said Gogodze.
“Some of them are moody, sometimes very blue, but they don’t show up during activities,” Gogodze continued. “There is a drastic difference in the children at the beginning and at the end of the seminar. After the workshop they are more relaxed.”
For refugees who have been able to get help, these programs are making a difference. Savchenko is grateful that she no longer hears bombs at night and can sleep well.
“The psychological support from Julia really helped me to have the right approach to my children and get them in the right mindset. “My family is currently in a normal psychological state thanks to the fact that we received this help,” said Savchenko.
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