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.
- At least one in five refugees are at risk of developing metal-related health conditions, with children particularly vulnerable
- Three million Ukrainian children have already been displaced by war after Russia invaded in February
- Experts warn that while most children are resilient, some will need dedicated support
“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.
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. .
“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.
The US Congress alone has approved $79.6 billion in aid to Ukraine to date, including $38 billion for military aid alone.
“We cater to the physical needs of children, but we also have to be there for their mental needs,” World Vision Australia chief executive Daniel Wordsworth told ABC’s News Breakfast.
“When you get into conflicts like this, you see so many terrible things happening, and you think the urgent things – children need to be in shelters, they need to have enough food – and those things are certainly true. But we can’t forget the impact of this kind of mental health crisis that’s looming, and we need to act at the same time. »
World Vision is optimistic about the future of its work in the current conflict, reporting that the humanitarian response plan for Ukraine is already 61% funded, in stark contrast to only 20% funding for all crises global humanitarians.
The only definitive answer to address the threats to children’s mental well-being, World Vision’s report concludes, is to end the conflict. In the meantime, says Mr Wordsworth, his organization will continue to do everything in its power to support Ukrainian children.
“Wherever we find children, whether in Romania, on the move in Ukraine or locked up in a place like Kyiv, we try to create these bubbles where children can be safe. »