By Dr. Kirstin Meier and Ruth Kopelke
Experiences children face during war stand in stark contrast to their developmental needs and to their fundamental right to grow up in a safe and predictable setting. Upon the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, around 1.5 million children became at risk of suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and social impairment. Children exposed to armed conflict, either directly or indirectly, suffer harm that persists for a lifetime and reverberates for future generations. According to a report by the humanitarian aid organization World Vision, without swift intervention across Ukraine and countries hosting refugees, the psychological wounds of war could affect children well into adulthood and result in a workforce crippled by mental disorders in 15 years. Every $1 spent on mental health yields a return of $4 in improved health and productivity in the long run. Therefore early intervention is not only an humanitarian imperative, but also a sound investment.
Adding to these numbers, the World Economic Forum estimates the global financial impact of mental health disorders could exceed $23 trillion over the next 20 years. For Ukraine, a country already facing the challenge of rising out of the social and economic damage of the Russian invasion, an investment of $50 per person in mental health now could save billions later.
Of course, ending this war is imperative to help children in Ukraine. We spoke to Dr Serhii Lukashov,Director of SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine. He told us how, prior to the war, the social situation for children and youth was developing promisingly. Now public health services are regressing to meeting the most fundamental needs – the provision of food, water, shelter, orphan distribution and basic medical services .
Whilst understandable in times of war, this is not enough. Mental health interventions are needed immediately to strengthen children’s emotional resources and help them regain their external safety as well as internal security. According to ESCAP, The European Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, interventions for war-affected children need addressing at multiple levels in order to deal with trauma, target the child’s unique needs and emphasize strength and resilience. Screening and assessment of the child’s psychological distress and resources would augment the efficient targeting of interventions. Obviously, supporting children also entails enabling parents, as well as providing post-migration infrastructure and durable social environments that foster mental health.
In the midst of the conflict, SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine has recognized the urgency of acute psychosocial support for children and is beginning to fill the gap. The organization provides acute life-saving assistance such as evacuation and provision of emergency shelter for more than 10,000 people, including 1000 families. Confronted with the consequences of the war, SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine also established a well-functioning system of psychological support for children and parents. By deploying mobile teams to support the rehabilitation of severely traumatized children, the organization strives to render immediate assistance for mental health accessible. Teams of psychologists visit transit centers for internally displaced persons to assess the psychological condition of children and provide psychosocial support as needed. Moreover, SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine organizes summer camps for children with a psychotherapeutic component integrated into play and entertainment programs, and evaluations have shown that parents, caregivers, and children view the camps very positively. Stepping forward with a good example, the organization proves that mental health care in the midst of the crisis is possible.
However, the capacities of civil society are naturally limited. Therefore, other stakeholders are needed to help deal with the rising mental health crisis. In an interview with ABC, Dr. Eva Alisic, Associate Professor of child trauma and recovery at the University of Melbourne, stated that it requires a network of cooperation between organizations and governments across Ukraine and its neighboring countries to get support to those who need it.
Serhii Lukashov from SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine, estimates that the loss of parents or caregivers due to Russian aggression and along migration routes will occupy generations to come. Aware of the lack of mental health services in Ukraine equipped to treat acute war trauma and post-traumatic stress, he observes: “a nation is left without functioning services – specialists of any profession fled outside the country”.
Stakeholders at all levels must act now to avert the psychological crises facing children in war zones, deportation and migration. Collective action can ensure the wellbeing and productivity of a future generation in Ukraine and abroad. Financial and human resources provide a solid foundation. We emphasize that time is of the essence to pool ideas with impact and align efforts, resources and targeted public activities in high-quality collaboration. Political leadership in European countries needs to create synergies and facilitate coordinated stakeholder efforts for successful implementation of early interventions to protect mental health.
About the authors
Dr. Kirstin Meier has several years of experience in microbiological research and is now working in international cooperation in the health sector. In addition to her studies on Global Health Policy, she is involved in a multi-stakeholder Global Child Health engagement.
Ruth Kopelke is a pharmacist with a background in public service and pharmaceutical industry. As a LSHTM Global Health Policy student and founder of a non-governmental organization, she is committed to a future where health is possible for all. Email: email@example.com.
Bürgin, D., Anagnostopoulos, D., the Board and Policy Division of ESCAP. et al. Impact of war and forced displacement on children’s mental health—multilevel, needs-oriented, and trauma-informed approaches. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 31, 845–853 (2022). Link
McCann, C. (2022, 8th July). New report warns that mental health impacts for Ukraine’s refugee children could cost billions. ABC. Link
S. Lukashov, Director of SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine. (2022). Interview with independent Global Child Health Community of Practice & independent Global Health and Migration Community of Practice on May 19th 2022, July 15th 2022 and personal communication on August 9th 2022.
World Vision. (2022). No Peace of Mind report. Link