Moral Low Ground

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Ukrainian Expat Wants to Deliver Psychological Support to War-Torn Homeland

Olga Fedorishcheva

Olga Fedorishcheva

Even before the current bloody conflict in Ukraine erupted last year, the nation’s largely Soviet-era mental health infrastructure was in shambles.

Mental health treatment, where it existed, occurred mostly in large, state-run institutions similar to what one might have encountered in the United States a century ago. Underfunded and understaffed, patients rarely received the care they needed, and although treatment was nominally free, many patients were forced to pay for services due to small budgets and big corruption. Those who couldn’t afford to pay to play were often left to suffer untreated. There has also always been a strong stigma attached to mental health issues due to the lingering Soviet legacy, when diagnoses of mental illness and confinement in horrific psychiatric prisons were used as weapons of political oppression.

This was the state of mental health affairs in Europe’s eighth-most populous nation before the violence resulting from the pro-Russian armed uprising and subsequent government military counteroffensive devastated eastern Ukraine’s already pitiful mental health infrastructure. In addition to the more than 6,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and more than 1.1 million internally displaced Ukrainians, there is another toll, one that doesn’t get properly counted or anywhere near as much attention—the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of men, women and children who are in need of psychological services and support. Facilities have literally been bombed to rubble. Psychologists and staff have fled, and those who have remained face the daunting task of trying to treat patients in an active war zone. The government has also stopped funding hospitals and clinics in rebel-held areas, forcing patients to risk their lives attempting perilous journeys to government-controlled territory for treatment.

It’s not just people living in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine who are suffering. As young Ukrainian government troops return home from eastern battlefields afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and a host of psychological scars and psychiatric needs, the nation’s underfunded and unprepared psych wards are having great difficulty treating them. Making matters worse is that old taboo surrounding those who seek psychological care.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t groups and individuals, both Ukrainian and foreign, trying to deliver desperately needed care to those in need. Doctors Without Borders has been running a mental health program in the hard-hit Donetsk region. UNICEF, partnering with multinational corporation Unilever and local specialists, is bringing support to children in conflict areas. Ukrainian psychologists dedicated to helping their compatriots have been working tirelessly, despite the danger and devastation. But these professionals, whether Ukrainian or foreign, can only do so much, and often face emotional burnout themselves, swelling the numbers of those in need of counseling and care.

Overseas Ukrainian mental health advocates are also pitching in, sometimes adopting tactics and technologies popular in their new countries in innovative efforts to provide psychological aid to their vulnerable homeland. Olga Fedorishcheva, a 34-year-old globetrotting actress and activist, is a native of Yenakiieve (Enakievo) in Donetsk, which is also the hometown of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced from office during deadly clashes as pro-Western Ukrainians occupied key portions of central Kiev. The Yenakiieve area has seen its share of bloodshed during the current conflict; earlier this month, civilians there were killed and wounded by shelling during renewed hostilities. Although she doesn’t currently live there, the war in Ukraine is never far from her mind, and Fedorishcheva has started an Indiegogo campaign to provide psychological support to her war-torn compatriots.

The Harvard graduate and current transpersonal psychology and integrative coaching student at the Ford Institute for Transformational Training has a plan to personally assist those in need: first, she is raising tuition funds to finish her studies. Then, she will create a team of mental health professionals, including psychologists, grief counselors, integrative coaches and other specialists. The third step will be building a digital platform for people from both sides of the conflict to be connected to their coaches and psychologists. The sessions will be held over the phone, via Skype and in person in both Russian and Ukrainian.

“Regardless of anyone’s political views on the situation in Ukraine, the unnecessary human suffering remains a fact: thousands of civilian lives lost and others destroyed,” says Fedorishcheva. “My father and my immediate family still live there, so it doesn’t get any more personal than this.”

More than just providing counseling, coaching and support, Fedorishcheva says she is “interested in helping people understand what in their psychological make up makes them vulnerable to the influence of various political agendas, which not only have little to do with their well-being, but also send them killing their neighbors under the guise of patriotism.”

In an interview with Moral Low Ground, Fedorishcheva said Ukrainians also “must understand that each and every one of us at a certain point gives over our thinking process to people we believe in, to political leaders, etc.”

“They’re making such huge decisions about things like whether to have peace or whether to go to war and who is suddenly supposed to be our enemy, when yesterday they weren’t,” she says. “And so the way to accomplish that is, when you have a coach or a psychologist, it basically allows people to understand their own decision-making process and to understand the things they believe in and hold as true. And very often the things we hold true are nothing more than beliefs that have been repeated to us by ourselves or by the outside so many times that it becomes truth to us and we don’t question anymore. Why do we perceive somebody as our enemy? Why does someone make a decision to enlist and go fight our brothers?”

Fedorishcheva knows that getting people blinded by the hatred of war to understand the complexities of manufactured consent in service of geopolitical objectives sounds like a lofty goal, even “a bit overly idealistic.”

“But it’s something I really believe in,” she says. “Whoever is making the life and death decisions about the geopolitical arrangements in my country, they’re not the ones who are dying. Who’s dying are the young men from western Ukraine being sent to eastern Ukraine, an army that hasn’t been trained for so long, and eastern Ukrainian civilians and armed forces.”

Something else Fedorishcheva also believes in is a commitment to “provide psychological support to both the parts of Ukraine that have been affected by the conflict, as well as those which haven’t [so] both sides that are now perceiving the other as the enemy” can begin the healing process when the guns go quiet.

“Providing assistance to both sides, I believe, will create a much greater potential for revolution and for healing divides which have been created so quickly, really over the last year and a half, and have become the underlying cause to send one part of the population against the other,” says Fedorishcheva.

Fedorishcheva is moving ahead with her plan to help as many people as she can. “The more people we will be able to cover, the better,” she says. “I feel that this has the potential to become something much bigger than what I envision in this website as a place for people to get connected and get coaching, psychological support and grief counseling.”

For war-torn Ukraine, the help couldn’t come soon enough.

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