Looming mental health crisis for 1.5 million Ukrainian children

By World Vision

Looming mental health crisis for 1.5 million Ukrainian children

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

The No Peace of Mind report, launched by the international humanitarian organization, has sounded the alarm on a looming crisis as Ukrainian parents reveal the mental health of their children is their biggest worry.

World Vision says without swift intervention 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.

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.

Catherine Green, Ukraine Country Director for World Vision’s Ukraine Crisis Response, said it was crucial that mental health prevention services for children and families were prioritized before it was too late.

“World Vision is concerned that the war is subjecting children to constant fear and hopelessness, increasing their immediate stress responses and as a consequence their risk for a range of mental disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and anxiety,” she said.

“That’s why 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.”

The use of artillery, mortars and military force puts children at risk of death and injury and 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.

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,” says 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.

Iryna has taken refuge at a church building in Chernivtsi run by one of World Vision’s partners, Arms of Mercy. She said:

“You know at first children were scared. They had trauma. But then I noticed that the children were not even reacting when there was a 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.”

Ms. Green said spending just US$50 per person could prevent more than 1 million conflict-affected people from developing more complex mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

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

“Children are resilient and they can be protected from any lasting effects with the right support,” she 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 programming to protect children’s mental health and that of their caregivers. But it needs to be prioritized and funded now across Ukraine and host countries.”