By Amy Kennedy
Devastating reports regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to make news cycles daily. In response to the war, the White House released a fact sheet in late March 2022 which underscores the U.S.’s commitment to providing mental health services to Ukraine, particularly for vulnerable populations like youth. We must follow through on our commitment to providing support for mental health care to give kids the opportunity to escape not only dangerous experiences now, but also a lifetime of undue struggle.
Ukrainian children are experiencing illness, injury, disability, and death. In addition to the immensely visible physical impacts the war has had, less obvious cracks are woven into kids’ daily experiences. Structure has dissipated, violence is routine, and food and shelter insecurity are commonplace. Without classrooms available, adults have even been facilitating lessons and playtime in underground bunkers.
If children do manage to escape from a war-torn country, their hardship will not be over. As of April 20th, more than five million Ukrainians have fled their home country. Arrival in a new country comes with the necessity of learning a new environment, new customs, a new language, a new life. This period is often referred to as secondary trauma, brought on by coping with both the need to possibly help other traumatized familial members through the shift and the lack of social supports available in a new society.
In this way, grave physical and mental health effects can continue to damage kids past the point of their escape.
Though the tragedies in Ukraine dominate newsstands now, it’s important to remember that Ukraine is not the only country with children undergoing crisis. Yemen, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan have also seen over 10,000 war-caused deaths as of 2021.
To better understand the situation young people will face, we can look to history. One study investigated the mental health implications only one year after exposure to war in Jewish and Arab adolescents. Their experiences manifested in PTSD, higher rates of school violence and substance use. Data shows that this specific uptick in negative mental health impacts is far from an isolated incident. Children exposed to war experience higher rates of depression and anxiety overall. This is especially troubling, considering fewer than 10% of people in need in post-conflict countries have access to mental health care, as studied by the Peter C. Alderman Program for Global Mental Health.
And it’s more than simply a personal experience. Increased activation of stress hormones in early childhood can result in neural connection decline in the brain, leading to learning and reasoning impairment, and, ultimately, a potential inability to function with devastating social cost. Without immediate support, young people will feel these effects beyond their encounters in crisis.
But we are far from helpless in our ability to offer aid.
Similar to the multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) we’re working to ensure in school systems nationwide, a multi-tiered psychosocial care package has been shown to be effective in clinical trials for children who have experienced violence. Emphasizing mental health awareness education, prevention services (including screenings), and ample treatment options will be paramount in contributing effective support. We need each of these tiers to strengthen kids’ ability to cope and thrive. Their childhood may be weighed down by war, but that does not mean we can’t fight for their futures to be filled with light and success. Kudos to the White House for making mental health a chief component of the assistance provided to Ukraine thus far. This should be the standard worldwide response for every disaster. Future generations depend on it.