Healing the invisible scars of the Ukraine conflict: IFRC and European Union launch mental health project
According to the WHO, one in five people are affected by mental health disorders in post-conflict settings. If left without treatment and adequate support, people from Ukraine face long-lasting effects that could harm themselves, their families and communities.
“Wounds of war are deep, sometimes too deep to manage alone,” says Nataliia Korniienko, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support delegate with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
As a Ukrainian herself who had to leave the country when the escalation began, she understands firsthand the stress faced by those fleeing conflict. “People are craving for someone to take the time to sit alongside them in their pain, but this often lacking for many fleeing Ukraine right now.”
In a regional initiative to meet this massive need, National Red Cross Societies in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have joined forces to offer mental health and psychosocial support services to more than 300,000 people from Ukraine. Funded by the European Union and with technical assistance from the IFRC and the IFRC Psychosocial Centre, the project connects vulnerable people with mental health professionals and volunteers from the five National Societies.
Support is offered in Ukrainian and other languages through various platforms, including helplines, mobile outreach and in-person group activities. Materials on psychosocial support in several languages are also going to be distributed among mental health professionals and the public.
Since the first days of the conflict, Red Cross Red Crescent staff and volunteers have been assisting people at border crossing points, train stations and temporary shelters – listening and demonstrating empathy, sharing life-saving information, and taking care of vulnerable people.
Aneta Trgachevska, acting Head of Health and Care at IFRC Europe, said: “We try to reach everyone in need in a convenient, personalized way. Assistance will not be limited to just a couple of calls or meetings—a person will receive support as long as we are needed. This kind of early response can alleviate symptoms and prevent people from developing serious levels of distress or even mental health conditions.”
The content of this article is the sole responsibility of IFRC and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
"He called them hope plants": Supporting people's mental health in the Ukraine crisis
A simple search for “Kharkiv” on the internet today yields scenes of grey ash covering splintered buildings. This is how much of the world now sees Ukraine.
Far from this perception are locals’ memories of crackling fireplaces and walks under the trees—so many of which now stand lifeless.
But at least one small clump of spring green remains—a few little plants in one Kharkiv resident’s back yard. The only ones to survive raining missiles in a garden once lush and vibrant.
“He called them hope plants,” says Ana Blanco, one of 20 emergency responders from the Spanish Red Cross working in Zahony, Hungary.
“He and his wife arrived at Zahony train station with two of them, having travelled all this way from Kharkiv. And every day I’d see them take such great care and pride ensuring they stayed alive on the windowsill of the shelter.”
For this man, these plants are his token of home. And while they may not be the most practical thing to carry with him on his journey, Ana understands they are vitally important to his mental wellbeing.
Having been an emergency responder with the IFRC since 2011, Ana knows that survivors of disasters and conflicts can be resilient. She’s seen it with her own eyes while providing emergency relief in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and water and sanitation support after the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
But this doesn’t mean hope always flourishes on its own.
That’s what brought Ana from her home in Valencia to Zahony—her experience teaching her that supporting the mental health of people affected by disaster or conflict is just as important as supporting their physical health.
She came with 20 fellow health specialists from the Spanish Red Cross to work alongside the Hungarian Red Cross, ensuring their teams have what they need to meet people’s immediate mental and physical health needs. And to help set up a health clinic in Zahony so they can provide effective longer-term support too.
This is not Ana’s first time supporting refugees. Twice, she has worked in camps in Greece helping refugees express their emotions through art therapy. Her eyes light up as she speaks, “It was remarkable. Even though there was a huge language barrier, we relied on universal ways of communicating.”
Whether it’s through creating art, or delicately tending to small plants on a windowsill—everyone has something to say, because everyone has something to feel. And these feelings need somewhere to go.
“I grew up in a family that has always helped people. I feel something is missing in me when I see a crisis and I can’t go – if I’m not available to respond. It’s an earthquake inside of me,” Ana explains.
It’s this innate desire to help others, to be kind to others—shared by so many millions of our Red Cross and Red Crescent family—that has motivated Ana during her time in Hungary. For many weeks she’s worked patiently to get to know so many of the people staying in Zahony and build trust with them, helping them to open up.
Speaking about another man she met early on who would sit alone on a bunk bed in the corner of the shelter, Ana says: “He didn’t want to go outside when I first met him. He’d been traveling alone, the possibility of reaching a friend abroad growing scarce.”
“Every so often, I’d say to him, ‘hope to see you at the train station!’ ‘Hope to see you around for a meal soon!’” And within a few days, she saw him emerge from the dark and step outside, interacting with her and the others.
On her last day in Zahony, Ana goes out of her way to help connect him with a helper on the other end of the phone. She finishes her mission knowing that for millions, home now looks very different to the one they once had. Many do not know where their journeys will end.
Ana holds a truth that so many disaster responders keep close to their hearts: we can never guarantee someone will be okay or that everyone will make it.But we do whatever we can to nurture seeds of hope, so that one day the lives of people affected by crises such as that in Ukraine can fully bloom again.
Click here to learn more about the IFRC's Emergency Appeal for Ukraine and impacted countries.If you would like to donate to support our work responding to this crisis, please click here.
You can also visit our mental health page to learn more about the IFRC's work providing mental health and psychosocial support around the world.
100 Days of Crisis: Fleeing Home, Returning to Joy
We had already packed our passports in the bag. Living in Kyiv, we were already witnessing tension in the air and watching the news of what was happening near the border of Ukraine. We had accepted we would probably need to seek safety outside the house at some point.
But that night came so much sooner than we expected. Loud bangs and flashes through the window startled us awake, crisis landing at our doorstep.
My seven-year-old daughter and I traveled to our relatives’ home just a few hours away. It was anything but an easy decision to leave our cozy, familiar home on the edge of the city next to the woods where we loved to walk on the weekends. We were so happy there, but we knew it was no longer safe for us to stay.
The journey was surreal. Music on the car radio was playing as if nothing was happening, yet all around us were sounds of war. And no sooner than when we arrived at our family’s home, we realized it was yet again too dangerous to stay.
Over the next several days, we continued moving from place to place moving toward the western part of Ukraine, expecting the conflict to follow us.
The upheaval took a toll quickly, especially on my daughter. I am a professional psychologist by training, so I knew exactly what to look out for to identify those signs of severe stress. Several times a night, we woke up to the sound of air sirens and alarms. She refused to sleep in her pajamas and instead insisted to sleep in winter clothes. She did not sleep at all, really. For fear of having to get back up and seek safety. She was scared all the time, her toy bear providing only so much comfort.
That was when I knew we needed to leave the country. We knew a few people in Poland, also from Ukraine, who had been helped by the welcoming Polish community. They had gone above and beyond to help shelter families fleeing Ukraine.
Everything about my life was turned upside-down overnight. Even the familiarity with my profession as a humanitarian worker and psychologist for the International Committee of the Red Cross, (ICRC). There, my job was to support families of missing persons in Ukraine. But when the conflict started, we all switched gears, fully focused on the emergency in front of us.
I was one of the original staff members who trained Red Cross volunteers in providing psychosocial first aid to people in distress. Ukrainian Red Cross volunteers put so much effort from the very beginning of the crisis into helping people in need. I also taught them how to recognize if they needed to seek help for themselves. And now, it seemed we all needed that.
Having worked with the Red Cross for years, I tried to do my best to support them in their lifesaving work using my skills.
Together with my ICRC team, we created hotlines for people who needed psychological help – the same support I needed myself.
Crossing the border to Poland, we were welcomed by kind volunteers just as we were when we were on the way in Ukraine. Volunteers provided us food, and toys for my daughter-simple acts that made me feel so much better. This, I noticed, seemed to be a turning point for my daughter, and soon she was back to sleeping and playing with the other kids.
Not long after we arrived in Poland, I was at the bank when a woman also from Ukraine heard my voice – the same language she spoke and started sharing her own story with me. She started to cry. That was when I knew she needed me to listen.
She wanted to share her story with someone who would take the time to sit alongside her in her pain. It’s what so many people crave, often lacking words to express it. It became clear to me that this was a way I could contribute using my skills, especially now that I had more capacity to care for others while feeling safe myself.
I reached out to my colleagues at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and am now helping to lead a program in countries neighbouring Ukraine to provide mental health and psychosocial support to people who have fled Ukraine, which includes many different activities where volunteers can support people by using psychological first aid skills, organizing child-friendly spaces, offering referrals to other service providers and much more.
Wounds of war are deep, sometimes too deep to manage alone.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back home and help my people in Ukraine. It’s still not safe to return. For now, I can only plan a few days ahead. When I can – when any of us can – we’ll return home to that simple joy we once felt before.
Nataliia K is a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Delegate with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She helps give back to people who have endured more than 100 days of crisis at home in Ukraine. She is from Kyiv.
Mental health and psychosocial support
Disasters and emergencies take an immense toll not only on people’s physical health, but on their mental health and wellbeing too. Addressing global mental health and psychosocial needs is a vital part of the IFRC’s work supporting healthy communities.
| Press release
Ocean Viking rescues 247 people within 48 hours from the Mediterranean Sea, including 5-month-old baby
Budapest/Geneva, 14 February 2022 – Search and rescue (SAR) ship Ocean Viking had an extremely intense weekend, with the crew having saved 247 people in five rescues in less than 48 hours. The ship is operated by European maritime search and rescue organisation SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Survivors are now being cared for onboard, having received food, dry clothes and blankets. The medical team provided first aid and psychosocial support, treating cases of mild hypothermia, fuel inhalation and fuel burns. Some people also show signs of torture.
Among the 247 survivors, there are 52 unaccompanied minors and a 5-month-old baby. The survivors represent 16 different nationalities, with most people coming from Egypt, Bangladesh, Syria, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Ivory Coast.
The first rescue operation started on Saturday, 12 February, three days after Ocean Viking had left the port of Trapani, Sicily. An alert was sent for an overcrowded wooden boat in distress in the Maltese search and rescue region. The rescue team of SOS MEDITERRANEE found 93 people in an overcrowded wooden boat without lifejackets and brought them to safety to Ocean Viking.
The second rescue took place during the night of 12 February, again a wooden boat in distress, in the Libyan search and rescue region. 88 people were rescued. The boat was highly overcrowded, very unstable, the people had no lifejackets and had suffered from fuel inhalation.
The third rescue happened on Sunday morning, 13 February, a small wooden boat with 22 people were in distress in the Maltese search and rescue region. The boat was at high risk of taking in water.
The fourth rescue started soon after the third one. Ocean Viking received a VHF call from the aircraft of the NGO Pilotes Volontaires about a boat requiring urgent help and about to take water in. The rescue of 25 people was completed in one hour.
The fifth rescue took place a day later, on 14 February, in international waters inside the Libyan SAR region. 19 people were safely recovered from a fiberglass boat in distress among 1-meter waves.
Since IFRC entered in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE in August 2021, the Ocean Viking rescued 804 people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea.
This life-saving mission is an integral part of the Red Cross Red Crescent presence to protect and assist people in countries of origin, transit and destination across Africa, Middle East and Europe. As a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian organization, IFRC’s global network provides critical humanitarian assistance to all persons in need, regardless of their legal status.
For more information, please contact:
In Budapest: Hannu-Pekka Laiho, [email protected], +358 40 5257126
In Budapest: Nora Peter, [email protected], +36 70 265 4020