Ukraine’s mental health crisis could impact generations to come. Here’s how the country is responding

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Hans Kluge, Regional Director, Europe, World Health Organization (WHO), Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine, World Health Organization (WHO)


  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to nearly 600 attacks on the country’s health care facilities and taken its toll on people’s mental health.
  • Almost 10 million people are potentially at risk of conditions such as acute stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, experts warn.
  • In response, Ukraine has rapidly stepped up investment in and delivery of mental health services, in what could set an example for the rest of Europe.

In the eight months of war in Ukraine, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed almost 600 attacks on health care facilities – with hospitals and other critical infrastructure damaged or destroyed.

But buildings can be repaired or rebuilt. Ambulances and oxygen tanks can be replaced. Medical supplies can be replenished. The human toll, though, is far greater.

As we write this, an estimated 6,114 civilianshealth care workers among them – have been killed, including 390 children. About 7 million people are displaced internally, another 7.4 million are currently living as refugees in surrounding countries and beyond.

Mental health impact of ongoing Ukraine war

And possibly the most damaging legacy of the war – its impact on mental health on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Almost 10 million people at the present time are potentially at risk of mental disorders such as acute stress, anxiety, depression, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Globally, it’s estimated that about one in five people in conflict settings have a mental health condition. The situation in Ukraine is no exception. An estimated 22% of the population currently living in areas affected by conflict will, at any time during the next 10-year period, likely have some form of mental health challenge – with one in 10 suffering from a moderate or severe condition like depression with suicidal behavior or psychosis.

People with pre-existing mental health conditions who previously relied on public mental health and social care are facing additional challenges in accessing the services they need.

The greatest needs are in areas the most severely impacted by the conflict, but populations in relatively safer parts of the country are also affected by anxiety or sadness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, anger and unexplained somatic symptoms.

These are all normal reactions to abnormal situations and for most people these symptoms do improve over time, especially if they can meet their basic needs and access social support – a challenge at this time.

Even before the war, Ukraine had embarked on an ambitious health reform process, including efforts to strengthen mental health services. This foundation has, by and large, enabled the wider mental health system to respond fairly quickly to the ongoing emergency, given its increasing inclusion within the wider public health ecosystem, thereby allowing better linkages between primary health care and mental health.

But the system is hard pressed to meet overwhelming demand. Realizing this, the government – together with more than 200 partners on the ground – has rapidly stepped up investments in, and delivery of, mental health and psychosocial support, both on the national and, most importantly, local or community level.

In the context of the ongoing war, the people of Ukraine have so far shown a high level of resilience. We need to support them in learning how to manage their own stress and support each other, ensuring that those who develop mental health conditions can access services that are safe and evidence-based.

Mental health treatment needs scaling up

Psychological interventions and clinical management of mental health conditions should be scaled up. The Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) establishes clinical protocols for non-specialist settings such as primary health care, allowing family doctors and nurses to identify and manage common mental health conditions, including stress-related ones.

For more severe cases, Community Mental Health Teams (CMHTs) established in Ukraine in 2016, amid earlier conflict, are proving their value all the more at the present time, adjusting to realities on the ground. Since the conflict began, CMHTs have started to use remote consultations, such as phone calls or video calls, continuing to care for people who remained locally or moved to neighbouring countries.

For the diaspora of Ukrainian refugees in various countries, mental health services are in place in partnership with host governments and partners. These programmes make mental health professionals available to support refugees through government-sponsored health services, as well as via non-governmental organizations and other civil society organizations with mental health volunteers, including psychologists and psychiatrists.

Such services are promoted via community engagement mechanisms, using communications materials and media outreach in the Ukrainian language to ensure refugees are aware of them, and making it easier via hotlines and other channels – refugee receiving points at border crossings, for example, or radio stations broadcasting in Ukrainian – to access them.

And, not least, a crucial component of mental health interventions is the well-being of front-line responders – as Ukraine’s health and social care providers are now tasked with responding to the war having suffered burnout battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may seem difficult to snatch good news out of the grim headlines from Ukraine. But it is genuinely encouraging, even inspiring, to see how resilient the health system has proven all this while, constantly tested yet standing – including the focus on mental health, an issue that all too often is neglected, even during crises.

Mental health given same emphasis as other issues

Ukraine has set an example for the entire WHO European Region on how the government, under the auspices of the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, and in coordination with partners, has responded to the mental health needs of the population – giving this pillar of health the same emphasis as, for example, restoring damaged infrastructure or ensuring medical supplies, and launching a national media campaign to urge people to seek the mental health support they need without worrying they could be ostracized or somehow discriminated against for availing of such services.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

Ukraine is determined not only to restore its damaged health mechanisms and infrastructure, but to do so smarter and better. Within this herculean effort, the building of the Ukrainian mental health system will continue both despite, and because of, the war.

The Ukrainian government and people know how critical mental health is for individual and national recovery – including the well-being of future generations. The WHO is determined to help them succeed.

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