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Ukraine Crisis: Making Connections Wherever You Are

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Medair
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Lucy Bamforth

Providing mental health and psychosocial support in Ukraine and Poland

In a moment, everything can change.

Families in Ukraine and in many other parts of the world where we work know this all too well. One day, life is as it always has been. The next, you and your family may have lost everything in a natural disaster, or are on the run as conflict engulfs your community. You may find yourselves displaced in a camp or community shelter. Your children might be asking you when you’ll go home, or when they can go back to school. Life can become unimaginably stressful.

Providing mental health and psychosocial support to people affected by emergencies like the one unfolding in Ukraine is critical. Mental health interventions can help people affected by disasters to identify ways to manage stress and cope with the new reality of their everyday lives. That’s why the provision of mental health and psychosocial support services is one of our key areas in our response to the crisis in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, we've partnered with Trauma Support Ukraine (TSU), a collaboration between three organisations: Trauma Company, Sounds of Change, and Safe & Sound. These organisations have over a decade of experience in providing long-term and specialised training in trauma-sensitive support in acute crisis situations. Working with TSU, we're providing weekly focus groups and professional development webinars to psychologists and mental health professionals inside Ukraine.

By providing support directly to psychologists, we're able to ensure that trauma-informed support is still available to people despite the ongoing crisis -- and, more importantly, is available through psychologists who want to continue working, who speak Ukrainian and know the culture, and who understand what their clients are experiencing. Once a month, support is given directly to the psychologists themselves.

Each training is delivered online, using platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp to connect with psychologists across Ukraine.

"Being online means we can be flexible in our way of connecting. The psychologists we are supporting, they can connect wherever they are - in a shelter, in a house, on their way to a neighbouring country. It's such a good way of connecting and sharing knowledge," says Anne van den Ouwelant, a specialist in trauma psychology and a founder member and trainer with Trauma Company. "They always come with specific questions - things like, 'When the sirens go off, children start vomiting. What should we do?' or, 'Should we try talking to children about the conflict? How would we do that?'"

The training, says Anne, is delivered in a way to makes the information easy to remember and easy to use.

"When we give them knowledge and information, we do it in a very practical and easy-to-remember way, because concentration capacities often suffer under tension and in very stressful situations. We give them short pieces of information and we give them a lot of techniques that they can use right away - both for themselves and with the people they serve."

Those techniques include things like tapping, strong breathing techniques, and imagination exercises, as well as music, art, and movement activities to help people cope with overwhelming emotions and physical sensations, strengthen their resilience, give them a sense of control, and prevent as much as possible the development of trauma-related symptoms.

"In cases where the acute traumatic situation continues for weeks, we have to create moments in which the alarm bell is not ringing - however small those moments are," says Anne. to help keep clients grounded and calm even as things around them continue to change.

"The great thing about being able to work online," she adds, "is that we can easily reach many people. Right now, we are reaching 150 psychologists. Let's say each one has five clients. So, 125 times five - that's a big reach."

Our teams are busy in Poland as well, providing Psychological First Aid training to volunteers who are directly supporting refugees from Ukraine, and ensuring that volunteers are aware of their own mental health as well.

“In crises like this, we tend to underestimate our own needs and compare ourselves to others,” says Riёt Kroeze, Medair Senior Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Advisor. “But mental health and psychosocial support must also be available for volunteers, for people hosting newcomers, and for anyone working on this response.”

“That’s why we’re dedicated to ensuring that psychologists have access to mental health support, supervision and training, and that volunteers have the skills needed to manage their own mental health as well as provide that basic psychosocial support to others as well.”

In addition to mental health and psychosocial support, Medair’s Global Emergency Response Team is working in Poland and Ukraine to address gaps in primary health care, and support relief efforts by supporting and sustaining volunteer organisations. We also hope to provide repairs to critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, water systems, and collective shelters.