The experience of being present on the territory of military actions influences the daily life of refugees and former military personnel, among whom are widespread prejudices about receiving professional psychological support. There is also the question of the policy regarding mental health in Ukraine. These and a number of other questions were at the basis of a new research project “Mental health and the well-being of internally displaced persons: Tactics for adaptation and stability in societies after the trauma of conflict.” UCU’s Sociology Department began this project together with other Ukrainian colleagues and the University of Birmingham.
According to research data from International Alert, approximately a third of internally displaced persons experience various forms of mental health problems, but only 26% seek professional help. This new project will help determine which internal government and international measures should be used to solve these problems.
According to the director of UCU’s Sociology Department, one of the project’s initiators, Prof. Oksana Mikheieva, in Ukrainian society the attitude towards psychological help is gradually changing, though there are still many stereotypes and prejudices.
The idea for this project arose in 2014, when during in-depth interviews people complained of a worsening of their emotional state and chronic sicknesses because of traumatic situations experienced due to military actions and forced re-settlement, said Prof. Mikheieva. Some of those asked admitted a need to receive psychological help; others were hesitant because of certain fears regarding professional psychologists. According to the assessment of experts that we polled (psychologists and psychiatrists), modern Ukrainians in moments of crisis mostly at first turn to priests or charlatans. Then they turn to a therapist, spending money on diagnosis of a sickness, when it turns out that they are physically healthy, and only after this are they ready for the advice to turn to a psychologist or psychiatrist. But all do not take this final step because of stereotypes that make them fear to be “diagnosed.”
In Ukraine, also playing a role is a certain inertia of Soviet consciousness, inasmuch as in late-Soviet times psychiatry was used as a way of combatting those who think differently.
“I still recall the time when people were proud of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. That was almost synonymous with a creative person of talent and genius. People like this disagreed with the system and were sent to psychiatric hospitals. In effect, psychiatry was then at the service of the state, and this is yet another reason why a prejudicial attitude was formed towards it. The new project’s value is that we also can influence the changing of attitudes towards mental health professionals and help popularize a culture of mental health in Ukraine. For in our country, ‘disability’ is for now only understood in a physical sense. A psychological aspect is still terra incognita,” explains Oksana Mikheieva.
In fact, there are positive developments, in particular, the start of the formation of a culture that accepts differences, the gradual growth of the understanding of inclusiveness, and the return to the social environment of those people who have been placed outside social interaction, admits the professor.
Today’s society is starting, step by step, to become aware that from differences we proceed to variety. A problem that remains is the question of “inclusive education,” which only now is developing approaches to understanding and accepting people with special needs. Correct professional terminology and formulations in this field are being developed.
“If we are speaking of inclusive education in school, then the teacher and parents should create an environment so that the child with special needs is not treated as ‘stigmatized.’ Happily, today the voices of those who are directly involved with the question of the civilized understanding of differences are heard. One woman who has a special child recently shared her impressions about a school which is introducing inclusive education. In a poll of the parents, a question was heard: ‘Is it possible to integrate into a class a child with special needs so that other children who study there can become more humane in their attitudes?’ The child’s mother noted that her child is not a trainer and should not train others in ‘humaneness.’ This incident is an indicator that we are only laying the groundwork and we are in the initial stage of forming an inclusive system in all aspects and, often, it would seem that good intentions are, in fact, a continuation of alienation,“ explains Oksana Mikheieva.
Yet another problem is limited access to psychological services for those living in a rural setting: “For an extended time a person lives in a state of chronic stress, the effects of which are possible to avoid or reduce, turning for psychological help in a timely fashion. However, in a rural setting, a network of such specialists is lacking. People there lack the opportunity to receive psychological assistance.”
This academic project will be conducted throughout Ukraine using qualitative and quantitative research methods – surveys to study post-traumatic stress syndrome, expectations and stability; in-depth interviews with refugees, specialists in mental health, government structures, and non-government organizations; an analysis of statistics in the mental health field.
The project team includes colleagues from the University of Birmingham: Dr. Irina Kuznetsova (main researcher); Dr. John Round of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences; Dr. Jonathan Catling, School of Psychology; Prof. Oksana Mikheieva of the Ukrainian Catholic University; and Dr. Svitlana Babenko of Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. The project is financed by the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (Great Britain).