The War in Your Head: Grief and Trauma in Ukraine

  The broken windows have been replaced, and 47-year-old Victor has rebuilt the outer wall  damaged in the spring. He has also reestablished the gas and electricity connections, but life is still not the same. In March, a Russian mortar grenade hit his truck in the driveway, sending fragments into the basement, where Victor and his mother, Svetlana, were sitting. The shockwave threw them against a wall. The nightmares still haunt Victor. “As you can see, most of our things are working again,” said Victor, who wasn’t physically wounded, “but it all still hurts. It hurts mentally. It is hard for me, my mother, and everyone here — all the neighbors. It is hard to forget what has happened.” Victor lives in Irpin, north of Kyiv. It was here that the Ukrainian military was able to halt the Russian assault on the capital in the spring, but in the process Irpin was heavily damaged, and several houses in the city were reduced to rubble. Victor and his grandmother were surprised by the Russian invasion and didn’t manage to evacuate until March. They lived through the horror. Recently, the Russian bombings of Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, have intensified. On October 10, Ukraine’s commander in chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, reported that Russia launched 75 missiles toward Ukraine. Forty-one were shot down. Russia has also started to use Iranian-purchased Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and Iranian missiles. Victor said that he hears the missiles and drones fly overhead on their way to Kyiv. “We can hear the whispering of drones in the air on their way to kill. It is inhumane. We never know where they will hit. The sounds take us back to how it was in spring,” he said. “I haven’t gotten any help. I don’t think that anyone has. I go to work, and that keeps me distracted. Do you understand? When I am distracted, everything goes away,” said Victor, who has more than enough to do with getting his house ready for the winter. 
While some buildings in Irpin, Ukraine, are being rebuilt, others are beyond repair. Photo credit: Stefan Weichert / WhoWhatWhy

Psychological Effects of War

Victor is one of many. The World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, and the organization’s representative in Ukraine, Dr. Jarno Habicht, recently warned that Ukraine is on the verge of a mental health crisis. In an opinion piece for, they wrote that “almost 10 million people at the present time are potentially at risk of mental disorders such as acute stress, anxiety, depression, substance use, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” A 2019 WHO found that 22 percent of people in conflict zones develop mental disorders. Kluge and Habicht call the current scale of mental health problems facing Ukraine “unprecedented in Europe since the end of World War II.” Shekhar Saxena is a co-author of the WHO review and professor of the practice of global mental health at the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard University. He has served in the WHO since 1998 and is the author of more than 300 academic papers. He told WhoWhatWhy that the current situation in Ukraine can also end up hurting future generations.  “There is a lot written about the intergenerational effects of trauma,” said Saxena. “There are the children who are experiencing trauma now whose chances of having a psychological issue in later life are substantially increased. But also, the people who have gone through this kind of trauma can actually pass it on to future generations because their own behavior and their way of coping with betrayal and trauma will change, and the way they bring up their children will also change.” He explained that psychological problems come when people lose control over a situation. This is exacerbated in war zones. 
The residents of Irpin must live with the destruction all around them. Photo credit: Stefan Weichert / WhoWhatWhy
“This has been examined in other war situations, including nuclear disasters and major catastrophes like what happened in some countries of the Middle East. And these highly traumatic events, which involve not one person, but the entire community, can have effects that last a long time,” said Saxena. The first reason, he pointed out, is that the destruction of their country continues to be a reminder of what they have lost even after the war. Secondly, fixing people’s mental states is much more complicated than rebuilding a country’s infrastructure. “This trauma will continue for a very long time,” said Saxena. “It could be at least many years, possibly even more. And, of course, that can start only when the war situation is over. And we don’t know when that will happen. So it is a major psychological catastrophe.”
Svetlana preparing borscht in her kitchen in Irpin. Photo credit: Stefan Weichert / WhoWhatWhy

“My Heart Hurts”

Back in Irpin, Victor’s mother, 71-year-old Svetlana, is cooking borscht, meatballs, and rice. She too recalls the terrible incident in the basement and the month she spent under Russian control. During the attack, she narrowly managed to run to the bathroom before the explosion. “I remember having so many severe headaches, and my eyes hurt so much. And tinnitus,” she said. “It is natural to react with anxiety, fear, crying, and even hysteria, but honestly, I don’t have the time to feel all this. I am just trying to stay busy.” Svetlana said that many are reacting the same way. People might look alright on the outside, but they struggle to process what they have been through. Svetlana tries to help her neighbors as much as possible. She said while there are a few organizations offering help, mainly people are taking care of themselves. Many people are worried that a new Russian bombing campaign will hit Irpin, and many fear a new Russian invasion of Kyiv. It is, she said, constant fear.  Russia and Belarus have recently held joint military exercises near the Ukrainian border north of Kyiv. Valery Revenko, head of the Department of International Military Cooperation and aide to the Belarusian minister of defense, wrote on that 9,000 Russian soldiers arrived in Belarus with hundreds of tanks and combat vehicles. The Ukrainian military has strengthened its defense on the border with Belarus. Recently, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has claimed that Ukraine is planning to attack Belarus and that Belarus is preparing to protect itself. As a result, Svetlana has decided that she will evacuate quickly if a new invasion of Kyiv begins.
Svetlana isn’t sure that everything will be the same again. She says that people have gone through so much and that it is hard to forget. Photo credit: Stefan Weichert / WhoWhatWhy
 

A Problem All Over the World

Across from Svetlana’s house lives 72-year-old Raisa. She told WhoWhatWhy that she often goes to the clinic because her heart hurts. It wasn’t like that before the Russian invasion, and she thinks it is due to stress. “I am scared,” said Raisa, “It hurts. I want to cry. I don’t know what will happen.” Mozhdeh Ghasemiyani is a psychologist with expertise in trauma, refugees, and crises. She has worked with Doctors Without Borders in places like South Sudan and knows how war affects a community. She told WhoWhatWhy that many, like Raisa, will have physical symptoms due to the psychological experiences of war. “Trauma and constant stress affect the body a lot. New research shows that people with chronic traumatic symptoms in their lives, especially those who have grown up in war, can get physical consequences,” said Ghasemiyani. “Gastrointestinal problems, and so on, and pain that cannot be explained. “Children are also affected. Memory can be decreased,” she explained. “These are normal reactions to trauma, which I see in many of my patients, showing up at their doctors because they are sure their hearts hurt. Many are anxiety attacks, reminiscent of heart attacks because it is like something or someone is sitting on one’s chest.” Ghasemiyani said that it is essential to tackle the psychological effects of war immediately. But it is often pushed into the background. “We do not take care of it very quickly, normally, in war zones,” she said. “When almost all men in Ukraine participate in the war, what does that mean for the future, when they return to their families and bring their traumas into the family dynamics? Even if children are not traumatized by the war, they are infected by symptoms that the father brings home.” The priority after a war is rebuilding. “Psychological help comes when the country is built up again. Unfortunately, at that time, many years passed, and it is difficult to talk about it,” said Ghasemiyani, who adds that some NGOs are working on helping locals deal with trauma, but a lot more investment and attention are needed.
Some buildings are under repair around Irpin. Photo credit: Stefan Weichert / WhoWhatWhy
The psychological effects of war on civilians have been studied in other recent conflicts. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the country saw a spike in mental health problems. , researchers found that 13 to 36 percent of children and adolescents in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Dohuk had symptoms of PTSD. had similar issues. “Reactions usually pass if the war does not continue for so long, but it becomes chronic if they are not processed or if the war continues for a very long time,” said Ghasemiyani. “Traumatized people try to avoid the memories they have, and the traumatic thoughts. Therefore, we often see they lack sleep because the thoughts and memories come when there is quiet. “Therefore, some keep busy and try not to sleep much, but it is not the solution,” she continued. “The more you avoid thinking about it, the more your brain tries to push, and you get other symptoms — physical symptoms and lack of sleep, aggressive behavior.”  Ghasemiyani pointed out that trauma can affect people far from war zones. Western governments need to be aware that their own citizens can be affected psychologically by war due to an endless stream of news and videos on social media. “It requires a greater effort from the authorities to understand that this is of huge importance in relation to having a real focus on how social issues affect young people in particular. How to talk to children and young people at a very early age — what they see, click on,” she said. “Young people are extra vulnerable and struggle with dissatisfaction.”
Volodimir Omeltjenko tries to stay busy, and he has enough to do. The garden and the house still need to be fixed. Photo credit: Stefan Weichert / WhoWhatWhy

Trying to Sleep Through the War 

In the city of Bucha, next to Irpin, lives 70-year-old Volodimir Omeltjenko. He’s also rebuilding his life after heavy fighting in the spring, when a Russian tank smashed through his gate and drove through his garden. Artillery destroyed his roof and blew out the windows. He said that he is doing alright but that his wife is more affected. “I still watch the news, but my wife doesn’t,” he explained. “We have chosen that she should only watch funny programs, and she watches a lot of snooker. She still shivers when trucks pass by on the road, as it reminds her of the Russian military vehicles.” Omeltjenko said that his wife spends a lot of time in bed these days. It is similar to many neighbors, he said. Some people don’t seem to be able to shake off the dark clouds. Omeltjenko met his wife 50 years ago in Czechoslovakia. Omeltjenko served in the Soviet Army and often sang for the soldiers. His future wife joined him on stage one night, and they soon became a couple. They are talented singers and have lived off their voices ever since. Omeltjenko’s wife, however, has stopped singing now after the war. “Maybe it is good that she has lost her singing voice, because what is there to sing about in these times of terrible events?” he wondered. He doesn’t know what to do, other than hope that the war will end and the problems will fade away. For now, he is focusing on rebuilding his house and trying to move on. “I am sure we will win the war, and everything will be better afterward.”    
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Stefan Weichert
 

The broken windows have been replaced, and 47-year-old Victor has rebuilt the outer wall  damaged in the spring. He has also reestablished the gas and electricity connections, but life is still not the same. In March, a Russian mortar grenade hit his truck in the driveway, sending fragments into the basement, where Victor and his mother, Svetlana, were sitting. The shockwave threw them against a wall.

The nightmares still haunt Victor." data-share-imageurl="" style="position:fixed;top:0px;right:0px;">

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