Skip to main content
MSF psychologists provide group and individual psychological sessions to people in areas  previously occupied, Ukraine.

Protecting mental health amidst the trauma of war in Ukraine

War in Gaza:: find out how we're responding
Learn more

The war in Ukraine has created a huge need for psychological support ranging from psychological first aid to comprehensive psychological care. People have experienced fear, trauma and isolation and are showing symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) psychologists are responding to mental health needs of patients with psychological first aid, mental health counseling and comprehensive psychological care. In 2023 alone, MSF psychologists have provided more than 8,000 mental health consultations in seven different regions of Ukraine.

Near the frontlines and in areas retaken by Ukraine, our mobile clinic reach people in the rural areas – many of whom have experienced months of fighting, violence and hostilities.


Kherson mobile clinic

“[February] 25 was my birthday. It was almost my birthday, when the war broke out. We were hiding in cellars. They [Russian armed forces] drove tanks and armoured vehicles through the village,” says Anatoliy Andriyevsky, 74, from Myrolyubivka village in the Kherson region. 

“Of course, it was scary. You lie down and think: ‘who knows what will happen in the morning.’ You don’t know if you will wake up of not. Especially if you are alone. It’s good to have someone to talk to, but I was alone.” 

Anatoliy heard about MSF from the community and started to think about getting help. One of the main barriers to access psychological support is the stigma and self-stigma associated with mental health disorders, especially in rural areas. Although MSF counselling is available for everyone, most of our patients are older women. 

“Men also feel powerless, helpless, and it of course affects their mental health. Their emotions need to be addressed, because they affect both the family and the person themself,” says Tetiana Baranets, MSF psychologist. 

Supporting mental health with the help of the community 

Further away from the frontlines, in Kropyvnytskyi, those who fled the fighting are coping with trauma, fear and anxiety. Predominantly women with children – displaced families – are adapting to their new lives. 

Vanya lives with his mother in a shelter for internally displaced people in Kirovohrad region. MSF psychologists support Vanya share and process his emotions with the help of toys.

“This is Bonnie. He is doing well, and he likes to sleep,” says eight-year-old Vanya, while showing his toy.

Eight-year-old Vanya lives in a shelter for internally displaced people in the Kirovohrad region, Ukraine.
Eight-year-old Vanya, who lives in a shelter for displaced people in the Kirovohrad region, shows his toy, Bonnie.  Ukraine, 4 July, 2023. 

In August 2022, Vanya and his family were evacuated from the Donetsk region in the east. Many of the children who have been internally displaced because of the war miss their homes, friends, past lives and teachers. 

“My youngest son Vanya used to feel very anxious at night, he was afraid of falling asleep. After talking to a psychologist, it became easier,” says Olena Beda. 

Most of our patients in the Kirovohrad region show symptoms related to anxiety or depression. To support them in developing coping skills, our psychologists provide both individual and group mental health sessions for children, while supporting the family members.

From January 2023 until April, our teams provided over 1,000 group sessions to patients in Kirovohrad region, supporting patients with anxiety, intrusive thoughts, trauma, and stress management.

Group mental health session for children in shelter, Ukraine
An MSF psychologist uses art for therapy during a children's group mental health session. Ukraine, 6 June 2023. 

“We work with children based on their individual needs: we play, draw, help them overcome fear and negative emotions related to what they have experienced,” says Svitlana Alekseenko, MSF psychologist. 

For people displaced in the country, group psychological support can support the community at large. MSF psychologists educate patients and the community on the benefits of psychological aid, which creates a more supportive environment and wider understanding of the benefits of mental health support. 

Psychological first aid after a traumatic event

While many have sought safety in the west of the country, missile strikes continue to endanger civilian lives and cause loss of life even far from the frontlines. The physical threat of the strikes is also causing phycological impact on people across the country. 

For people facing the aftermath of an attack, psychological first aid is essential to help them cope with symptoms such as shock, panic attacks, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and withdrawal from daily activities. 

In regions near the frontlines such as Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk and Kherson, our teams have responded to the acute psychological needs in the aftermath of missile strikes or other disasters. For example, in March 2023, MSF psychologists responded to the aftermath of a missile strike in a residential area in Zaporizhzhia

As our teams arrive on-site after a strike, the first thing we do is identify people facing the psychological impact. Receiving timely and proper support can reduce a person’s recovery time from a traumatic event.


Psychological first aid

“The most important thing is to help them become responsive, establish contact with them, and make it clear so that they see you, hear you and that they understand where they are,” says Inna Potapenko, MSF psychologist.

“We always pay attention to those who sit in silence, because it’s clear that this is a state of unresponsiveness, which a person needs to be brought out of.” 

Peer-support and specialised care 

For some, one or two mental health counselling sessions isn’t enough. Long-term and specialised care is needed to decrease the chances of developing mental health disorders, preventing further development of symptoms and supporting their abilities to maintain relationships and prevent isolation. 

In the Kyiv region, we provide comprehensive mental health care to people who have faced torture or ill-treatment. With the help of both group sessions and individual sessions, patients can share their emotions with others who have had similar experiences.


Survivors of torture

“Psychological violence can be more challenging than physical violence”, says Andryi Verbich, 52, who faced ill-treatment and torture while being held by Russian armed forces. 

“Constant exposure to loud propaganda in the cell makes it difficult to communicate and overwhelms the mind, it makes it feel like you are losing your sanity.” 

In Hostomel, those who have faced violence and trauma often feel excluded from their community and can become isolated. The combination of group and individual mental health sessions can support someone’s sense of self and community.

People often find themselves living only in their traumatic memories. Life for them, becomes divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’, and they feel trapped in that vacuum. Mariyana Kviatkovska, MSF psychologist

“As humans, we are unique and not defined solely by our negative experiences. Our impact goes beyond that,” says Mariyana Kviatkovska, MSF psychologist.

“However, people often forget this and find themselves living only in their traumatic memories. Life for them, becomes divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’, and they feel trapped in that vacuum.” 

Mental health remains a challenge for Ukraine’s healthcare

Ukraine’s healthcare system is leading initiatives to promote mental health well-being and services, however, the war has had a devastating impact on people’s mental health. Although many people will adapt on their own, the more people are exposed to various traumatic events, the more their chances of developing mental health problems increase. 

The lack of psychologists and counsellors, the stigma associated with mental health and the reality of the ongoing fighting in some regions all make it more difficult for people to receive timely care.

Without timely and proper psychological support, issues can develop into long-term, post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety and depressions and have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. 

Up Next
Project Update 29 December 2023