The War in Ukraine – A Psychological Response

The War in Ukraine – A Psychological Response

Alexander Dimitrevich & Stephen Nimmo

During the first days after the war started, we received several requests from different companies which had their branch offices in Ukraine. They were keen and ready to evacuate their employees, but people simply refused to leave their home towns. They refused to leave their country, this, in spite of coming under regular fire.

In the first instance we all know what patriotism feels like. However, if there is not a choice to join the army or a volunteer group, if there is not a choice to be helpful in support of the country, then a person must think of a very solid reason to stay in what is a warzone.
It may well be, simply a natural reaction. Many people have described their state of mind at this point like a form of shock and we know that this is the first stage of a typical brain response to crisis events.

Now, four months after the war began, and after hundreds of meetings, training and interviews with refugees from all over the Ukraine (including Mariupol, Irpen and Gostomel) there is a clear sense of tendencies of how our psyche works in such situations.

Of course all these stages are well known and studied but it is worth mentioning them in order to understand how we can best utilize these studies for use by organisations to provide a better response in the future.

Shock is what was being described by survivors. ‘I felt like it was a nightmare and wanted to wake up’. Some of them described their condition during the first hours. ‘I felt like I was a character in a bad movie. Sometimes I watched it in black & white. Time seems to be frozen or passing very slowly’. This is what is known as derealization. Some of them said ‘It seems like it was happening not to me but to someone else.’ This is what is called depersonalization symptoms. Both are dissociative symptoms which are quite common to a person under severe stress. Then many people described their thoughts like ‘It can’t have happened, just because it can’t have happened because it’s impossible’. This is how we go from shock to the denial stage. People are seeking for disproving facts and alternative information to convince themselves that the events are not true. This is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Of course, shock and denial are being followed by a number of emotions. For example, fear, horror, frustration and aggression. Knowledge about these stages is crucially important for crisis responders and for those who want to better cope in critical situations. The two primary stages can be really dangerous. They tend to make people freeze or doubt, instead of taking decisions and acting on those decisions. Sometimes, the cost of freezing, is life itself. The imperative, is to understand the stage where you are. This enables you to say to yourself, ‘this is how my stress works. I need to ACT rather than freeze.

Then you enter the realisation stage. A point at which we begin to understand that this is actually happening and it is happening to myself. Later on, there is an acknowledgement stage when the brain accepts the situation for what it is. It will then start to try and work a way out of the situation. To find a way out. This ultimately takes us to the adaptation stage.

Adaptivity is the main feature of any human being, and many other creatures for that matter, who are able to survive any circumstance or situation. The main challenge is to accept any given situation, and live through it. Our resilience and survival is in action, not in freezing.

In the current crisis, to teach people to accept themselves as they are, and to learn these strategies and coping mechanisms, Alexander Dimitrevich (GoCrisis Mental Health Associate) and Steve Nimmo (Director of Operations), created and delivered a series of training programs for their clients, and their employees, delivered in English, Ukrainian and Russian. We also provided a program of one-to-one support to those who needed it. This ultimately gave a considerable number of learning outcomes which can be utilized in the future. For those involved, the training and other support showed a very positive therapeutic effect. People began to manage to understand themselves, to accept themselves, to understand that this is the normal reaction to a given situation. They also learned to understand their colleagues, their loved ones, and others. They had an excellent opportunity to articulate how they felt in a safe environment, seeing that they are not alone, and share common issues with others. It soon became obvious to them that through shared experience, their thoughts and feelings were in common with each other. This created a group cohesion, and a good basis for the creation of peer support within the groups and beyond.

From the point of view of the company’s management, the provision of these opportunities shows a considerable duty of care towards staff. It is an investment in their welfare in the here and now, and also moving forward.

Such training provides the perfect toolkit for mitigation of social stigma of mental health disorders, because people talk openly about stress, potential trauma and different hardships. This training has become a bridge from pyscho-education and practical knowledge, to support, counselling and therapy where needed.

Also, the GoCrisis team within a framework of this training was able to explain how GoCrisis’ crisis response hotline works. The provision of multi lingual responders enables us to ensure callers can express themselves in their own language. A must in a critical situation, and a way to reduce immediate stress. In real time, GoCrisis provided many fully qualified Ukrainian psychologists working remotely or at the scene. In doing so, it has proven its ability to deploy an effective communication option for its clients, with the capability to expand as required and provide call handlers with language skills that match those in need of support.

Confidentiality is of course of paramount importance, but we have a considerable number of learning points about how such work can be better structured in the future. This would apply to many different incidents, and would affect the way we manage them.

In many cases, we have emphasised the need for welfare officers who work with the company staff structure. This would facilitate and speed up decision making processes.

While any crisis provides people’s tragedies, training and studies helps a company mitigate any future impact on its people. It also enables the organisation to provide a higher standard of response.

There have been many excellent examples from recent clients who organised the evacuation and relocation of their staff. They provided mental health support for their staff also, and we hope that in the future, this will become the norm for all companies who fully understand the need to offer support to their most valuable asset, the people who work for them.

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Dries Wehmeyer

Associate

Dries has over 55 years of experience in all the facets of the aviation industry. He has held positions as Squadron Commander, Head of Advanced Management Training as well as Head of Aviation Safety of the SA Air Force, Director of Flight Operations, Head of Flight Operations Training, Safety Manager and Emergency Response Planning Manager. He is certified as a Safety Professional with the Institute of Safety Management and is a qualified military pilot, instructor and trainer. Before his retirement Dries was the Executive Manager Aviation Safety and Emergency Response Planning with South African Airways.

His leadership and management expertise includes areas such as Advance Management Training, Strategic Management, Aviation Safety, Flight Operations, Operational Control, Training Management, Quality Assurance, Cargo Handling, Ground Handling, Accident Investigations, Risk Management, Continuous Airworthiness Management (CAMO) and Emergency Response Planning.

Dries assists Companies, Flight Operations Departments, Safety Departments, Airports, Training Organisations and Maintenance Organisations to conduct their business safely and effectively. He assists Companies in preparation for CAA, IOSA, BARS and other related audit standards. He provides legal compliance assistance and guidance to Civil Aviation Authorities, Companies, Operators, Maintenance and Training Organisations. He has developed and successfully implemented several flight operations, aviation safety, occupational health and safety (OHAS), integrated safety risk management systems, cargo handling, CAMO, emergency response plans and formal safety culture, in various Companies.

As a qualified aircraft accident investigator and has conducted several major aircraft accident investigations. He is also a qualified Lead Auditor and has led and conducted a number of operations, quality, aviation safety, OHAS, airports, training, maintenance organisation, emergency response and related aviation audits.

He develops Emergency Response Plans and provide training for scheduled and charter operators. He has directed several emergency response incidents and facilitates tabletop and full functional emergency response exercises.

Dries develops and compiles a variety of required manuals and provides similar training to help Companies to operate and function at world best practices and standards and thereby ensures that their business is effective and safe. To achieve this, he supports Companies to develop and optimize required management, operational and safety management processes and then articulates the associated procedures in the respective manuals. He subscribes to the concept of “Document what you do, and then do what you have documented”.

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Vincent Bertucci

Associate

Location: Americas

Vince has over 15 years of aviation experience working in a variety of both operational, safety and emergency management roles, most recently leading the Emergency Response and Humanitarian Assistance Team at United Airlines.

Vince began his aviation career as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps where he was trained as an Aviation Safety Officer. He led an aviation mishap investigation and mishap board following a major accident. He is also a trained Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. 

Following his military service, Vince joined United Airlines where he led United’s Emergency Response Team. During his time at United he responded to several minor aviation incidents and major man-made and natural disasters. Vince deployed United’s Special Assistance Team to Houston, Texas following Hurricane Harvey providing humanitarian assistance to several hundred employees experiencing total loss of property. Immediately upon return he directed United’s EOC in supporting victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As part of the star Alliance Emergency Steering Committee he co-developed a common disaster site plan used by all member airlines. 

Vince graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy where he studied Aeronautical Engineering. He currently resides in the Chicagoland area. 

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Stephen Gregory

MSc MSyI TechIOSH

Associate

Location: UK & EU

Steve has 30 years of policing and emergency response experience in the London Metropolitan Police Service, during which he specialised in the multi-agency management of major incidents and as a result Steve spent the last 5 years of his police service seconded to the National Centre for Policing Excellence as Head of the Disaster Management Team. He was an advisor to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and to the Home Office and Interpol regarding Major Incidents, Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), Mass Fatalities Management and the Humanitarian Aspects of Disaster. Steve was commended numerous times during his police career, including a Metropolitan Police Commissioners’ Commendation for his response to the London Bombings in 2005.

Over the last 15 years, Steve has worked in the commercial sector emergency response environment, including five years with the UK Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College as a Lecturer and Assessor in incident management, counter terrorism, and safety at sports grounds and events. He was also a Safety Officer for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

Working in multiple sectors throughout his career, including aviation, transport, and oil & gas industries, Steve has delivered strategic, tactical and operational advice, as well as training to key sector stakeholders. He has responded to incidents in the UK, North Africa, Namibia, France, Russia, and has provided training and participated in exercises in the UK, UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and Somaliland.

Steve holds a Master of Science Degree, MSc., in Emergency Planning and Disaster Management and is a visiting lecturer in Major Incident and Mass Fatality Management at several UK Universities. He is a former Fellow of the Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management (FICPEM), and is a Member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (TechIOSH), the Security Institute (MSyI), and an Associate Member of the UK Emergency Planning Society (AEPS)

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Selwyn James Valentine

Associate

Location: Middle East

As a professional Crisis Management Expert, with extensive years of working experience in the field, Selwyn is facilitated with the knowledge, skills and experience that involves the design, establishment, execution and management of a wide array of Crisis Management and Business Continuity strategies, policies and procedures.

Over the last 28 years, he has worked with organizations within the Aviation Industry, including the Emirates Airline group and Airports in the UAE, and helped them effectively manage crises, minimize the effects of disruption and enable the recovery and continuation of critical business functions, through effective development, training and exercising of Crisis Management Frameworks.

Selwyn is a certified member (AMBCI) of the Business Continuity Institute in UK.

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Saroj Sodi

Associate

Location: UK & EU

Saroj is a highly experienced senior leader with over 30 years of experience in Aviation, she has represented the airline/aviation for resilience at key regulatory and industry groups in the UK and internationally. Shej has led business resilience, operations performance improvement, customer service development, and airline consultation, demonstrating excellent stakeholder management skills in a complex airport environment.
An experienced Senior Leader with a track record of transformational delivery. She has a vast breadth of expertise across all aspects of business including; business resilience, safety management, frontline customer operations, airport operations, and corporate programs. Her valuable cross-functional insight uniquely positions her to successfully develop, advise on and implement effective plans and response to business continuity and crisis management. She set up the business resilience capabilities in British Airways and as Gold Incident Commander, has led crisis response worldwide for endemic and pandemic, industrial action, political unrest, IT failures, major weather events, natural disasters (Icelandic volcanic ash) grounding of aircraft fleets, aircraft incidents , and more. She also led the operational and humanitarian response on the ground too; for example in New York for Hurricane Sandy.
Saroj is flexible, reliable and customer-focused, and has a proven track record of delivering pragmatic solutions that are aligned to the business strategy. She is a strong and experienced people manager of culturally diverse and remote teams.

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Peter Lynham

Associate

Location: UK & EU

Peter has worked in aviation for 40 years, 35 of which were with British Airways in Manchester, Gatwick, Heathrow and China. He has held senior roles in Strategy, Engineering and Operations culminating in a 5-year stint as Head of Global Operations during which period he masterminded BA’s response to various crises, including the 2010 Icelandic Volcanic Eruption, for which he designed the plan which triggered the reopening of UK airspace after a week’s closure, and for a major snowstorm in southern England the same year. As Gold Incident Commander, he took the pre-emptive step to halt all of the BA’s operation just before the snow started, despite heavy criticism from other airlines and airports who were taking a more optimistic view (which did not materialise!).
Peter coordinated mergers with other airlines (British Caledonian, DanAir and British Midland), and implemented best practices from alliance partners such as Qantas, American Airlines, and US Airways. He also coordinated the kick-offs for joint ventures with China Southern/GAMECO, Gulf Air/GAMCO etc.
Since leaving British Airways, he has advised C-suite executives of airports and airlines around the world on planning, process, organisation, and systems. He has also conducted engagements to overhaul the crisis management procedures at a major low-cost airline in SE Asia, and the disruption escalation procedures at a low-cost carrier in Central America.
GoCrisis is thrilled to have such an experienced professional as part of our team to support our global clients.

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Peter Ahlström

Associate

Location: UK & EU

Peter Ahlström is an experienced leader with an extensive background in the travel and airline industry and crisis management. He is an operations, communications and security specialist.
He started his working career on the Cruise ships between Finland and Sweden and went on to study political science and international relations. His next step was to join the flying crowd, where he worked in several airlines based in Denmark, Finland, USA and Germany to finally land in Sweden.
His career in crisis management began when he became the Head of Ground Handling in the airline TUIfly Nordic, one of six airlines part of the TUI Airlines Group in Europe, the largest leisure company in the world. He was part of the management team for 19 years and the role included the task as Emergency Manager and Crisis Manager for the airline, in close cooperation with the nordic tour operator TUI and all the TUI companies worldwide. The role included building manuals, doing training, exercises and managing the daily global operation of the airline for many years. The incidents handled were the tsunami disaster in Thailand and the ash cloud challenge in Iceland/Europe, to mention a couple.
His next step was to head the Emergency Response of the largest Scandinavian Airline SAS. The role contained all aspects of crisis management – procedures, training , exercises and continuous contact with all levels of the company. Peter was a significant provider of the plans for SAS handling the pandemic crisis.
He has been part of crisis training, both attending and lecturing in several conutries. Airline and travel is the background, but the experience can be of use in any crisis where strategic support and the humanitarian aspect needs to be achieved.

Peter is of Finnish origin and speaks Finnish, Swedish, Danish, English and German.

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Bob Palestrant

Senior Associate

Location: Americas

Bob Palestrant has over 40 years of experience serving as a registered nurse, firefighter/paramedic, emergency manager, and in the discipline of homeland security. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) through the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), a credentialed Chief Fire Officer (CFO) through the Center of Public Safety Excellence and earned his master’s degree in Homeland Security from American Military University.

He was the Director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security for Miami-Dade County, Florida, coordinating multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional responses to disasters and large-scale emergencies, and as a member of a coalition of Emergency Managers from the 11 largest U.S. cities, worked with the Council of Excellence in Government to standardize and improve methods of increasing the preparedness and the ability of cities to respond to disasters on a national basis.

Bob has been instrumental in multiple activations including several major hurricanes, Superbowls XLI and XLIV, multiple mass casualty incidents, aviation disasters and mass shootings. As a member of the Florida Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team, he was on several deployments including the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.

As the Southeast Florida Fusion Center Terrorism Liaison Officer Program Coordinator, he served on multiple regional, state, and national homeland security-related committees and work groups. He is certified as an Incident Command System (ICS), instructor, and Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP) Bomb Making Materials Awareness Program (BMAP) Administrator/Trainer. He has received multiple service awards and honors, and in 2021, was selected as the Government Technology & Services Coalition-Homeland Security Today’s State Homeland Security Person of the Year.

Bob was a technical consultant for the show “Without Warning,” broadcast on both The Discovery and The Learning Channels and has been a panel member or given presentations on emergency management, aircraft rescue and firefighting, and homeland security issues at multiple conferences and symposiums across the country and internationally.

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Nicky Whitehead

Associate

Nicky has over 20 years’ corporate experience, ranging from legal to humanitarian development.

She is currently head of the False Bay base for National Sea Rescue Institute in South Africa. In her role,  she has been involved in multiple rescue operations, body recoveries and multi-sector training and scenario exercises.

Her qualifications include Health & Safety, Risk Assessments, Confined Spaces Training, Hazard Communications, Incident Command Systems, Search & Rescue Techniques, Maritime Emergency Care, Emergency Response Planning & Family Assistance.

She also Freelances as a Medic and after successfully completing her Tactical Operative course she further qualified as a Firearms Instructor & Assessor.

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