Mental health impacts of Ukrainian refugee children could cost billions, new report warns

Lessons learned from a decades-long civil war could help counter the lasting mental health effects of Ukrainian children exposed to airstrikes, bombings and other wartime violence, a child trauma specialist has said.

“These are the adults and society of the future,” says Eva Alisic, associate professor of child trauma and recovery at the University of Melbourne.

In Syria – a country ravaged by a decades-long civil war – a study indicated that 88% of the population had experienced at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), highlighting the urgent need for constant support in mental health in conflict zones.

“That’s what we can learn from previous crises…we need a long-term view and long-term support for these people, rather than that initial rush and not being there anymore, which is really detrimental,” says Dr. Alisic.

Almost a quarter of people affected by conflict are at risk of developing some form of mental health disorder. In the context of the war in Ukraine, that would equate to a growing number of more than 4.5 million people, including 1.5 million children, according to a new report by World Vision, an international humanitarian organization working in Ukraine.

Some Ukrainian parents fleeing with their families have written details of their relatives on the bodies of their children, as a precaution if both parents are killed.(ABC: Brendan Esposito)

Although not affiliated with the World Vision report, Dr Alisic says the war in Ukraine offers an opportunity to apply lessons learned from responses to previous conflicts and provide more sustained support to those who need it. need.

“One of the things that always worries me is that there is this initial interest in supporting people – and there is a lot of media attention and a real outcry – and then, after a few years, it doesn’t. is no longer news, but people are still dealing with such incredible challenges. »

In the coming decades, a large percentage of Ukraine’s adult workforce may be struggling with some form of emotional or mental disorder catalyzed by childhood trauma that is happening now, as millions of children are among those fleeing the devastating conflict.

According to the World Vision report, mental health support is not only an important humanitarian imperative, it is also a wise investment, with $1 of mental health support expected to yield $4 in improved long-term health and productivity.

The World Economic Forum estimates that the global financial impact of mental health disorders could amount to more than $23 trillion over the next 20 years.

For Ukraine, a country already poised to recover from the social and economic damage of the Russian invasion, an investment of $50 per person in mental health could save billions later.

Investing in Ukraine’s Future

Functionally, this investment in mental health and the provision of necessary supports can be challenging, as conflict inherently displaces the populations most in need.

Although she is not on the ground herself, Dr Alisic says it requires a network of cooperation between organizations and governments across Ukraine and its neighboring countries to bring support to those in need. .

A woman and a child walk along a path accompanied by soldiers.
The most important factor in aiding the mental well-being of refugee children would be an immediate end to the war.(PA: Petros Giannakouris)

“Partly there is a response on the ground with humanitarian organisations, partly in the countries where people are currently seeking refuge, and there are a lot of initiatives to support and provide these basic elements – shelter and food – as well as more social and mental health support,” says Dr. Alisic.

According to the World Vision report, children are particularly vulnerable to the accumulation of various stresses inherent in refugee life: they may have witnessed or suffered atrocities in their country of origin, have been separated from their families for their flight and, even on their arrival in safer places, face the difficulties of settling in an unfamiliar environment.

Three million Ukrainian children have already faced this ‘triple whammy of the conflict’, the report says, and – despite trying to resume their lives in neighboring countries – they still fear the threat of airstrikes and bombings. .

In May, G7 financial leaders pledged $27 billion to continue supporting Ukraine’s stability as it battles Russian invasion.

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