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Providing Support to Ukraine During War with Telemental Health

Using the Community Resiliency Model to reduce toxic stress.

Key points

  • By using telemental health, psychotherapists do not have to wait until after the war or displacement to provide mental health support.
  • Psychotherapists can field difficult questions from individuals stemming from living in a war zone to reduce the effects of toxic stress.
  • Amid war, stress reduction methods can be taught using telemental health to increase the well-being of children and adults.

I waited in a bread line and, suddenly, there was shelling. Tragically, half of the people in line are dead. I escape with my life. How do I go back to the bunker and not bring my fear and anxiety to my children and elderly parents?

This survivor’s question is one of the scores of questions our team at the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) has responded to since Russia invaded Ukraine. We have been a daily presence to our colleagues at EdCamp Ukraine at the invitation of their inspirational leader Oleksandr Elkin since the start of the war on February 24, 2022.

Our response is the first time we have reacted to wide-scale conflict while it was happening. Traditionally, TRI has responded to natural and human-made disasters globally after traumatic events.

Watching the images of Russia invading Ukraine sparked the TRI international community to take action. This conflict touched me deeply because of my personal experience. In 2019, I was invited by my colleague, Elkin, to come to Kharkiv, Ukraine, to speak at EdCamp Ukraine’s annual educational conference.

EdCamp Ukraine is a movement of over 35,000 educators that organizes training and various projects for educators and students, including launching Emory University’s SEE Learning Program within the schools in Ukraine. Chapter 2 of SEE Learning, a curriculum for children K-12, uses TRI’s Community Resiliency Model concepts and resiliency skills.

This background proved critical to launching what is now known as the Ukrainian Humanitarian Resiliency Project as EdCamp Ukraine already knew the resiliency skills’ effectiveness.

TRI’s response is a paradigm shift – the notion we don’t have to wait until after the war or displacement to provide mental health support. Could we mitigate the impact of the mental health challenges faced in the present time, and could our efforts reduce the incidence of post-traumatic stress injuries?

We don’t know the absolute answers to these questions. Still, from the anecdotal information and many views of our support meetings on EdCamp Ukraine’s Facebook, people listen, and our support provides comfort and even hope.

Through the pandemic, we had all learned to scale our reach through digital platforms like Zoom and WebEx. Within twenty-four hours of the start of the war, we created an online webinar series to teach the six wellness skills of the Community Resiliency Model to the EdCamp educators and a broader community in Ukraine. The training materials were translated into Ukrainian by translators. They assisted in the delivery of the workshops on February 25, 2022, a day after the start of the invasion.

Elkin then requested that TRI provide daily support meetings for their community. It was becoming clear that people needed further support as there were over 10,000 views on EdCamp Ukraine’s Facebook Page of our webinars in the first four days.

So, on March 1, the daily support meetings began. As of this writing, we are now on Day 47 of support. All sessions have been on Zoom and continue to be live-streamed on Facebook Live or YouTube Live. There now have been close to 80,000 views.

We have fielded difficult and heart-wrenching questions. Examples include questions about losing faith; fears of dying and taking one’s own life rather than being captured; problems with sleeping; worries about children’s behaviors and fears; post-traumatic images of sounds that will not leave their mind; anxiety; hopelessness; fears of being tortured and raped; supporting children who have been raped; overuse of social media and images of war by teenagers; disheartened by Russian relatives who believe Russian propaganda; fears of pregnant women; challenges with children and adults with disabilities. Some questions are about the future and how to rebuild Ukraine, supporting the mental health needs of returning soldiers and civilians.

We have responded to every question and have had meaningful dialogue, all while being translated from English into Ukrainian. At times, the support meetings have been interrupted by a siren or the sounds of explosions. We have continued to provide support as people have gone to safer spaces and returned. We don’t know the status of all whom we have supported.

The TRI team uses all their skills to affirm and acknowledge the suffering and shift to questions about what may be true, bringing forward questions like, “What or who is helping you the most right now?” “Do you remember when you got to the safer place?” “Did anyone else survive?” What or who has helped you get through during difficult times in your life?” These questions give moments of respite and often lead to the individuals being more strength and resiliency-focused as they begin to talk about the present and future with a more positive lens.

We address how traumatic experiences are embodied. We bring forward ideas based upon the biological-based skills, teaching about the autonomic nervous system, the stress response, and how to experience calmer states by using the biological-based skills of the Community Resiliency Model.

Research about the Community Resiliency Model demonstrates statistically significant reductions in depression, anxiety, traumatic stress reactions, and improvements in well-being at statistically significant levels.

We collaborate with our Ukrainian colleagues who are therapists or community members, inviting them to share ideas as they live through the invasion and the constant risk. We also try to link the listeners to resources that can help with issues of displacement. We have gathered lists of therapists who speak Ukrainian that can offer individualized support.

TRI’S team comprises volunteers and staff trained in the wellness skills of the Community Resiliency Model and trauma therapists well versed in somatic-based therapies like the Trauma Resiliency Model and other modalities like crisis intervention, trauma-informed Yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, and EMDR.

Our team brainstorms from our various perspectives on how to respond to the questions. The human toll of war expressed in the daily support meetings comes with a cost to our team. We are deeply moved by the courage and strength of the Ukrainians and humbled by the experience. We also suffer through the experience. Thus, support sessions occur daily for our US-based team to debrief.

Edie Eger, the world-renowned author of The Choice, psychologist, and holocaust survivor, has joined our meetings with messages of hope for our Ukrainian colleagues.

She shared her mother’s last words before she was led away.

“Just remember,” her mother said, “no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

Her mother’s words nourished her as she lived through the unspeakable atrocities of war as we also hope her words can help in what is happening now in Ukraine and many other areas of our world.

For more on TRI's efforts, click here. To comment on this post, visit Resiliency Within’s Facebook page.

References

Eger, Edie (2017), The Choice: Embrace the Possible, Scribner, NY, New York

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