The War in Ukraine – A Psychological Response

Alexander Dimitrevich

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) 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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