Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Ukraine Coping, Help-seeking and Health Systems Strengthening in Times of War

Mental health and psychosocial support in Ukraine: insights from an interdisciplinary review

Reda SadkiGlobal health

A new interdisciplinary review from the ARQ National Psychotrauma Centre and VU Amsterdam provides an in-depth analysis of the mental health impacts, cultural and historical factors shaping coping and help-seeking, the evolving humanitarian response, and recommendations for strengthening mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in Ukraine.

The report is an interdisciplinary literature review supplemented by key informant interviews.  It synthesizes academic publications, gray literature, media reports and policy documents in English, Ukrainian and Russian. The review team included Ukrainian practitioners and regional experts to identify additional Ukrainian-language sources.

The review found that the war has led to high levels of acute psychological distress, increased risk of the development of future mental health problems, exacerbation of chronic mental health conditions, psychosocial problems, and an increase in substance use. Exposure to war-related trauma and violence, coupled with the loss of social support systems, poses lifelong risks for a range of mental health issues. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are particularly vulnerable, with previous research showing that “32% of IDPs in Ukraine experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 22% had depression.”  

Children’s mental health is a critical concern, with “three out of four parents report[ing] signs of psychological trauma in their children” such as “impaired memory, inattention, and learning difficulties.” Over 1.2 million children are internally displaced, with approximately 91,000 separated from family care. These are “the most vulnerable children […] living outside their families, residential institutions for children without parental care or boarding schools, unaccompanied and separated children, and children with disabilities.” Displacement disrupts education, social networks and routines. Adolescents struggle most to adapt and connect with new peers. Older children are taking on caregiver roles for younger siblings. The review identifies a lack of policies and programs specifically targeting child and adolescent mental health as a key gap.

Ukraine’s complex history has shaped current attitudes and practices around mental health. The review notes that “Ukraine’s historical memory is fragmented, with evaluations of events varying significantly among different population groups,” compounded by “Russia’s historic and contemporary efforts to rewrite Ukrainian history.” Soviet-era legacies of stigma, institutionalization, and the misuse of psychiatry have bred mistrust of formal mental health services, according to the review. Instead, “help seeking behaviour tends to be directed toward spiritual leaders (clergy) and practices.” Religious beliefs and leaders play an important role in mental health coping and support.

High levels of societal stigma toward mental illness persist, rooted in cultural norms that view psychological distress as a personal weakness or moral failing. Many Ukrainians hide their struggles and avoid seeking professional help due to fears of being perceived as ‘weak,’ receiving a diagnosis that could jeopardize employment, or being involuntarily hospitalized. “Ukrainians still perceive psychiatrists as being highly likely to disclose information about mental health and psychosocial disorders with employers, and therefore, even a single visit to a psychiatric hospital may destroy the future […] There is a particular tendency to hide suicidal thoughts due to high levels of fear of involuntary hospitalisation”, says the report.

Since 2014, conflict-affected areas in Eastern Ukraine have seen an influx of MHPSS services through humanitarian efforts, while recent national reforms have aimed to decentralize and deinstitutionalize mental healthcare. However, the current crisis has disrupted these reform efforts while dramatically increasing MHPSS needs. This presents both challenges and opportunities to “build on available resources” and integrate “successes of the emergency response into building more sustainable mental health care systems.”

The review highlights the stark regional disparities in MHPSS needs and capacities due to variations in conflict exposure, displacement patterns, infrastructure damage, and pre-existing resources. Areas affected by armed conflict face acute challenges, including widespread mine contamination, community distrust, and decimated health services. Meanwhile, safer areas in Western Ukraine are straining to meet the needs of large displaced populations. However, they also have more MHPSS responders and opportunities for longer-term interventions.

To address these complex challenges, the authors stress the importance of cross-sectoral coordination, building on local capacities and cultural resources, and strengthening partnerships between government, civil society, and faith-based organizations. Rigorous research on MHPSS interventions in conflict-affected Ukraine can inform evidence-based responses in the country and globally. 

The review provides a roadmap for strengthening Ukraine’s MHPSS response through a focus on sustainable, locally-grounded, and trauma-informed approaches. While the needs are vast, there are also opportunities to transform mental healthcare and build resilience.

Reference: Iryna Frankova, Megan Leigh Bahmad, Ganna Goloktionova, Orest Suvalo, Kateryna Khyzhniak, 2024. Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Ukraine: Coping, Help-seeking and Health Systems Strengthening in Times of War. ARQ National Psychotrauma Centre and VU Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Image: The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection © 2024