Health Tech Without Borders has launched an initiative to support Ukrainian mental health professionals and healthcare workers, to reduce emotional stress and increase coping, resilience and sustainability in their work providing care to the affected people in Ukraine.
Photo: Neil Thomas/Unsplash
Helpers and healers who interact with people in Ukraine who have experienced violence, displacement, loss of personal safety, and sexual assault, need support themselves.
«Therapists and other healthcare providers help others in shock and distress but are going through the same devastation. And there are never enough mental health providers. Therefore, we must listen to them and support them, so that they do not burn out,» says Eva Regel.
She is a mental health therapist and social worker (LICSW – Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker) and is employed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Recently she became Program Clinical Director for 3H: Helping Healers Heal, at Health Tech Without Borders.
A few years ago, some other US health professionals started this kind of support program, to prevent secondary trauma, which frequently leads to burnout among healthcare workers. Unfortunately, because of burnout and professional fatigue, some also leave the profession.
«I have no words for the gratitude I feel towards the helpers. They are amazing. They save lives,» Regel says.
The therapists meet patients online and in person, and they work from Ukraine or from other countries. Regel says they are professionals and have their own methods for dealing with the emotional burden of accepting other people's pain.
«They educate themselves and certainly know of many coping strategies. Still, when it comes down to it, we're all just human. This means they too must have someone to talk to about their feelings.»
Image: Eva Regel (screen caption)
Mental health providers deal with different degrees of trauma. In some cases, they are talking to people experiencing survivor’s guilt. They might be blaming themselves: Could I have done more? Should I have stayed there?
Findings from the pilot phase
In the process of launching the Helping Healers Heal project, Eva and her colleagues have completed a pilot together with a few participants. Two mentors in the USA supported Ukrainian therapists.
«Eight therapists in Ukraine received psychological help from the mentors. We hope the number of US based mentors will increase to 10-12 people, so that we can engage more Ukrainian carers, » Regel says.
Regel says they need more Ukrainian-speaking volunteers.
«Many contact us to take part in the Helping Healers Heal project. They are health counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists. We are so grateful for their interest.»
Regel and the team will evaluate the findings from the pilot. They are now building the core group of volunteers who would like to contribute.
Support better coping skills
The New York-based psychiatrist Abdullah Hasan joined Health Tech Without Borders as a volunteer in the spring.
He underlines that Helping Healers Heal is an important project. First, it makes the therapists aware of their vulnerabilities. Second, it provides them with a safe space where they can talk about their feelings. Third, a referral for counseling can be made if the health professionals problems go beyond the support group’s expertise.
«Sometimes there is a misconception among care providers, particularly after many years in practice, that they are immune to trauma-related issues. Therefore, their suffering may go unnoticed. They will suppress their feelings, sometimes successfully, to continue to provide help while suffering silently,» Hasan says.
Dr. Abdullah Hasan (Photo: Private)
Eventually their subconscious takes over. It can lead to resentment, exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Some may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, heavy drinking or aggression towards their loved ones.
«This project allows health professionals to be in touch with their own strengths. We can prevent negative thoughts and support better coping skills,» Hasan says.
HTWB continuously supports sharing best practices with our key responders based on their professional needs. To enable it, we collaborate with international experts in psychiatry and psychology.
On our website you can find recordings of previous webinars on these topics:
The challenges ahead
Since the beginning of the war, more than 11 million Ukrainians have left their homes – about one third of the population. A few million have returned. However, the government discourages people from returning as the county is fighting to keep the inhabitants from freezing this winter.
People who leave the country or are internally displaced have many issues and need mental health support. When social and economic stress forces people to become a refugee, it always has an impact on mental health. Many of those who left the country show symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Olga Gershuni, HTWB’s Mental Health Program Director, says that the war dramatically affects children’s and adolescents’ mental health.
«It increases the chances of anxiety disorders, PTSD and depression. Unfortunately, the capacity for mental health support is always scarce. Health Tech Without Borders continuously supports our colleagues in Ukraine and worldwide, who are working in disaster response and experiencing mental health challenges,» Gershuni says.
Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.
Many factors contribute to how well people adapt to adversities, predominant among them (a) the ways in which individuals view and engage with the world, (b) the availability and quality of social resources, and (c) specific coping strategies. .
Psychological research demonstrates that the resources and skills associated with more positive adaptation (i.e., greater resilience) can be cultivated and practiced. (Source: APA Dictionary of Psychology)