KYIV – “Psychological health is as important as physical health.” That was the key message of a press briefing on psychological health during warfare, which took place in Kyiv in the Ukraine Crisis Media Center on December 7, 2018. The briefing marked the launch of Mental Health Without Prejudice (MHWP), a major project led by Ukraine-based NGO Development Foundation managed by Vitaliy Kharechko, vice-chair of the board, and with support of the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine (PAS).
The stigma associated with psychological illness is one of the barriers to effective care for mental health, particularly in the context of the armed forces around the world.
MHWP marks a departure from existing programs that focus on the treatment of psychological illness post-trauma in two significant ways. First, it presents a preventive approach to psychological wellness, prioritizing healthy life practices over short-term remedies. Second, it destigmatizes psychological care by approaching psychosocial wellness as a socially integrated life practice rather than a treatment for individual dysfunction.
Through the tireless and visionary efforts of the Development Foundation in both the practice and research of psychosocial health during crisis, Ukraine stands to pioneer this important new direction in global health.
To prevent it is easier than to treat, said Marta Pyvovarenko, chairwoman of the foundation’s board, psychologist and supervisor for specialists in the psychosocial sphere in the Donbas. That is why the program focuses on the development of self-help skills before, during and after active duty.
It is important to emphasize that this program is not focused on individual psychotherapic treatment following trauma, she explained. Rather, it presents a broader systemic approach. The principle is to give psychological tools to fighters, veterans, their families and to the professionals working with them. The program fosters a comprehensive approach to health and wellness that is not simply curative, but integrated as daily practice. It treats wellness not only as an individual phenomenon, but as a social phenomenon. In addition to working with the individual, the program works with the family, community and support networks.
An innovative component of the MHWP program is its integration of psychological and somatic methods. “Somatics is based on the integration of the body with the mind,” said Katja Kolcio, associate professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who joined the press briefing via video. Somatic methods include breath work, body awareness and creative practices.
“Breath, blood circulation, digestion, heart work, calming and speed of reaction – all these systems represent the integrated functioning of the body and the mind. In an environment of war and social unrest, the abrupt transition from one state to another,” according to Prof. Kolcio, “can be the hardest on people, often resulting in post-traumatic stress. Somatic methods promote general health and help prepare for extreme conditions pre-trauma, while also aiding in recovery post-trauma from injuries sustained – both physical and psychological. It does not take a lot of time, but it is powerful. This approach to wellness is not through pills or tablets, but through understanding of yourself.”
The importance of this project was noted by the deputy head of the Moral and Psychological Service of the Land Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Col. Sergiy Nagorniy, who described the impact that a sudden change of circumstances has on a person. The transition from a “peaceful life” to the “extreme conditions” of war is a great stress, but the return to civilian life afterward proves to be equally difficult.
Mental Health Without Prejudice consists of three components: providing psychotherapeutic assistance to veterans and their families; providing professional development of specialists working directly with soldiers; cooperating with other organizations internationally to conduct and exchange research on the psychological consequences of military conflicts.
An online platform for the development of an international partnership of psychosocial researchers will also be created in order to collect expertise and data on the impact of war and violent conflict on psychological health around the world and across cultural contexts.
For more information on MHWP, readers may contact Mr. Kharechko or Ms. Pyvovarenko at email@example.com, or through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/foundationdvcom/, or they may visit the Development Foundation at http://foundationdv.com.
Katja Kolcio participated in the briefing via video from Middletown, Conn.; Maria Pyvovarenko participated in the press briefing in Kyiv.