Mental health crisis looms for Ukraine's children

World Vision to ask the Australian government for a $20 million aid boost to support mental health, psychosocial support and child-protection programs.

The horrors of war are leaving a generation of Ukrainian children scarred, with 1.5 million in danger of anxiety, depression and social impairment, a new World Vision report warns.

The No Peace of Mind report, launched today, says the war is subjecting children to constant fear and hopelessness, increasing their immediate stress responses and increasing their risk for specific mental disorders now and into the future.

World Vision says without swift ‘psychological first-aid’ interventions across Ukraine and countries hosting refugees, the mental wounds of war could affect children well into adulthood and lead to a workforce crippled by mental disorders in 15 years.

“We are doing what we can, but we know from experience in places like Syria and South Sudan that proper investment in mental health and other services is vital if children are to overcome the impact of such distressing experiences,” the report says.

“Children are resilient and can cope if provided with adequate support. However, if left unattended, their symptoms will have mid- and long-term impacts; in 15-20 years’ time, a large percentage of the country’s workforce will be suffering from some sort of emotional or mental disorder. On top of what this will mean for individuals, families, and Ukrainian society at large, it will also inevitably have long-term economic impacts on the country and the region.”

UK artist Hannah Rose Thomas visited World Vision projects in Bucharest as part of the Ukraine Crisis Response. She sketched refugee women and children for an art exhibition and led art classes for children and mums at two Happy Bubbles.

The report highlights devastating stories of children crying through the night, being able to name the different types of weapons used in conflict and feeling too frightened to sleep.

The findings have prompted World Vision to ask the Australian government for a $20 million aid boost to support mental health, psychosocial support and child-protection programs.

We know from experience in places like Syria and South Sudan that proper investment in mental health and other services is vital if children are to overcome the trauma they have suffered.” – Daniel Wordsworth

World Vision Australia CEO Daniel Wordsworth said it was crucial mental health prevention services for children and families be prioritised before it was too late.

“World Vision is extremely concerned that this war is subjecting children to constant fear and hopelessness, increasing their immediate stress responses and, consequently, their risk of mental disorders, including Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety,” Wordsworth said.

He said an investment in Ukraine of about $AU70 per person now could prevent more than one million conflict-affected people developing more complex mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“World Vision is already helping. We want to do more. We are boosting our psychosocial programming in the coming months, but we can’t do this alone. We know from experience in places like Syria and South Sudan that proper investment in mental health and other services is vital if children are to overcome the trauma they have suffered.”

“Every day we heard the sounds of airplanes, tanks and shooting in the street.” – Polina

The use of artillery, mortars and military force not only puts children at risk of death and injury but also threatens their emotional wellbeing. Exposure to airstrikes, bombing and crude military violence can destroy a child’s sense of security, which is fundamental for healthy childhood development. And nearly two-thirds of Ukraine’s children have been forced to leave their homes with the associated trauma of being ripped away from their support networks in unfamiliar countries or towns and for many, separated from family members.

UK artist Hannah Rose Thomas visited World Vision projects in Bucharest as part of the Ukraine Crisis Response. She sketched refugee women and children for an art exhibition and led art classes for children and mums at two Happy Bubbles.

In interviews with Ukrainian children and carers crossing the border into Romania, children repeatedly told World Vision staff of feeling scared and distressed every time they heard an airstrike.

“It was scary, very scary,” said Polina, 12, from Mariupol. “Every day we heard the sounds of airplanes, tanks and shooting in the streets. A rocket blew up near our garden. One house was on fire and the walls fell. There was ash all over the city. It was time to leave.”

One mother told World Vision staff that her family left Ukraine’s east largely due to their concerns for the mental health of her children and grandchildren, who had been subjected to war for eight years.

“You know at first children were scared. They had trauma,” said Iryna, who has taken refuge at a church building in Chernivtsi run by one of World Vision’s partners.

“But then I noticed that the children were not even reacting when there was bombing. And it was also a shock to me. I couldn’t understand how kids do not react. They could exactly say what weapon it was. And that’s the scariest thing that the kids are getting used to it.”

“I noticed that the children were not even reacting when there was bombing. And it was also a shock to me.” – Iryna

Previous studies have shown us that more than 22 per cent of conflict-affected populations may end up with some form of mental health disorder. In the case of Ukraine, that would mean about 4.5 million people – 1.5 million of them children – and the number is growing daily.

“Children are resilient and they can be protected from any lasting effects with the right support,” Wordsworth said. “The good news is that the outpouring of generosity towards the people of Ukraine means we are in a rare position in this emergency: there are funds for programs to protect children’s mental health, and that of their caregivers. But it needs to be prioritised and funded now across Ukraine and host countries.”

 

If you would like to donate to World Vision’s Ukraine Appeal, click here.

 

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