War in Ukraine: the difficult psychological reconstruction of refugees arriving in France, “all traumatized”


“On the 14th of July there were some really nice fireworks, but we only lasted a minute with my daughter, it reminded us of the bombs.” Like many other Ukrainian refugees, Oleksandra Zakrasniana, a psychologist in Kyiv a few months ago, before being welcomed in the region of Valence (Drôme), still bears the psychological weight of the war in Ukraine. “Almost all Ukrainians can no longer stand the sound of explosions,” he says. >> War in Ukraine: follow our lives during the six months of the conflict Six months after the start of the conflict, while some refugees who arrived in France have regained some balance, they all continue to experience Russia’s attack on their country as if they were still there. And despite the passage of time, the impact of the conflict on his mental health remains detrimental. For example, the story of this woman, which could be the story of many Ukrainian women. Arriving in France in April, after fleeing Kyiv, he does not speak French. Above all, he doesn’t have a driver’s license. A problem, because if your daughter is enrolled in school, the establishment is an hour away and the bus does not come every day. Far from everything, little by little, the woman is losing her footing in front of the administrative procedures. His desire to return to his country at war takes over. “That’s when she started having panic attacks, crying constantly and seeing everything black,” describes Vitalina Ustenko. The psychologist, head of the Ukrainian association Psychologists Without Borders and herself a refugee in France, claims to have heard many similar stories from refugee patients asking for help. Depression, guilt, panic attacks… The symptoms felt by these emergency exiles are numerous. “This uprooting can first be expressed with headaches, pain, Olena Vyshnevska, a Ukrainian psychologist and refugee in Carcassonne (Aude), tells franceinfo. At first, you feel strong emotional swings. One minute you cry and the next you’re in a river. .. Added to that are sleep problems and anxiety. This can lead to depression.” The psychological impact is even more serious for those who have left their family “or a lover” in the country, emphasizes Olga Vasylchenko, psychologist and university professor, refugee in Toulouse. “It’s especially difficult for teenagers. The younger ones adapt, but they want to come back,” he observes. This finding is far from surprising. Although it is too early to assess the consequences of the war on the mental health of Ukrainians, many studies have already shown that refugees are at greater risk of psychological distress than the general population. Thus, the University of the Red Cross in Stockholm (Sweden) demonstrated in 2017 that 40% of Syrian refugees who arrived in the country between 2011 and 2013 suffered from depression. And that almost 30% were victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome, an extreme anxiety disorder experienced after a traumatic event, such as an attack or the loss of a loved one. Especially since, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 30% of Ukrainians already suffered from psychological disorders before the start of the offensive by the Kremlin troops. In particular, the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. The constant link to Ukraine, through online media, social media and messages from relatives back home, does not help. “We are all witnesses to this war with the internet. We are all traumatized,” Olena Vyshnevska emphasizes. A situation that sometimes makes those who fled feel guilty. “Most of the refugees feel guilty because they didn’t stay, and they didn’t help the army. They think that by leaving Ukraine, they are like an enemy, a deserter.” Olena Vyshnevska, Ukrainian psychologist at franceinfo As a result, many “do not allow themselves to be happy, to feel joy, not even by drinking coffee” and “do not take care of themselves by refusing to live a normal life.” How can these needs be met in France, when many refugees do not speak the local language? Volunteers are being organized all over France. In some municipalities, support associations have launched psychological support for newcomers. Facebook groups, led by French or Ukrainian volunteers, also allow refugees to get in touch with psychologists based in France. “I help two or three people a week, mostly online, although I would like to start a support group where I live,” says Olena Vyshnevska, trained in conflict mediation. The one who plans to “install art therapy, in Montpellier, for children with a psychiatrist”, explains that she has decided to help other Ukrainians to “do something”. [ses] knowledge.” Vitalina Ustenko delivers the same speech. “I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. All Ukrainian citizens need help, wherever they are. This is how I try to be useful.” Vitalina Ustenko, head of the Ukrainian association Psychologists without borders to franceinfo. At the same time, the state is also developing initiatives aimed at improving mental health In a decree published on March 10, the government thus he recalled that “the health care of these displaced people requires (…) special attention” and asked the “regional health agencies” to mobilize “the mechanisms of adequate care, especially with regard to mental health”. A dedicated hotline number “for any help” related to this crisis, “including psychological support”, has also been published on the subject by the Ministry of Health, and has called the medico-psychological emergency units of each department, reports Le Figaro (article reserved for subscribers), but, according to those concerned, the effort remains insufficient to help the approximately 89,000 Ukrainian refugees present in the territory laugh “France does not have a well-established support network for immigrants,” laments Vitalina Ustenko. He says he received no response after offering to work with several French institutions. Especially, in the case of depression, “it is difficult to find a psychiatrist who speaks Ukrainian” and “impossible to buy drugs with a Ukrainian prescription”, which “adds to the difficulty”, he said. Paris could be inspired by other European countries, Vitalina Ustenko continues, while “in Germany, Poland, Portugal or Norway we have many examples of networks of support centers for Ukrainians who go on foot”. Initiatives “that have the advantage of employing refugees specialized in this sector”, he concludes. The European Union has also released 9 million euros for the mental health of people who fled Ukraine last April. But the sum is not enough, as the needs of the 5 million refugees hosted in the EU are great and the support needs are long-term. “The real consequences on our mental health, we will only really know when the conflict is over,” said Oleksandra Zakrasniana. A major challenge when it comes time to rebuild this country at war.
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