Psychological stability of young people: how to cope with the challenges of the war

The war waged by russia on Ukraine will not end in ‘two or three weeks’. To be able to work, volunteer, keep a cool mind and unwavering confidence in victory, you need to learn how to maintain your mental health and know when and whom to ask for help.

Self-help and self-diagnosis skills are especially important for young people.  The way young people cope with the challenges of the war today will determine what their lives will be like tomorrow. In other words, how they will work, raise children, and build a career. Finally, whether they will feel happy.

A system of support and assistance for this age group is being developed by researchers at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. With grant funding from the NRFU, they are implementing the project ‘An Innovative Model of Protecting the Mental Health of Student Youth in the War and Post-War Periods’.

What is this model of protecting the mental health and how exactly do they plan to create it? Iryna Pinchuk, PI of the project and director of the Institute of Psychiatry of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, tells us about this.

“Student years are the time when young people start living apart from their families, master complex educational material, and take their first steps in the profession. This is a great burden on mental health. Now, during the war, this burden can become critical”, the PI says. ”That is why we decided to develop a support system for young people”.

Both occupation and captivity

The researchers began their work long before the start of the project. In April 2022, they conducted a psychological screening of students, in particular, they tried to find out what traumatic events young people faced during the war (loss of relatives, loss of property, evacuation, etc.), and also, whether they seek help or know whom to contact.

“We saw that some students were under occupation and trying to study from the temporarily occupied territories, seven of them were in captivity, some faced sexual violence”, the professor continued. “We realized that it was a serious issue, young people need support and do not always understand where to look for it”.

Becoming successful in the NRFU call made it possible to study the situation as thoroughly as possible and start working on a model for mental health prevention and recovery care. This model is planned to be implemented at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and then proposed to the Ministry of Health of Ukraine for implementation in other institutions of higher education.

The number of PTSD symptoms is increasing

The second survey was conducted using an improved questionnaire (questions about violence, occupation, captivity, etc. were added), and more than two thousand students took part in it. “The survey helped to track the dynamics of changes in mental health over the year and a half of the war”, said the PI. “The first survey showed that most of the respondents had post-traumatic stress disorder, and the second showed that the number of severe signs of PTSD had increased (this means students did not seek help). 20 percent of the respondents said they had attempted suicide. These are very disturbing figures”.

Based on the survey results, the researchers identified several groups: high-risk, medium-risk, and mild symptoms of PTSD. But, according to the professor, at some point they seemed to ‘get stuck’: they realized that students needed help, knew how to help, but did not know whom, because the survey was anonymous.

So, the next task was to ‘reach the student’ and find young people who needed help. The researchers sent letters to teachers of 17 universities and asked them to tell about their research. The idea worked: 200 students from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other cities agreed to take part in the open survey. The researchers are currently analyzing the results of the survey and will offer support to all those who need it.

“We are now thinking about how to reach out to all students”, Prof. Pinchuk continued. “We decided to offer an annual mandatory screening for anxiety and depression. The survey will be strictly confidential. Thanks to the screening, each student will find out whether he/she has symptoms of depression and whether they are mild, medium or severe. After the survey, each participant will receive a link to a map of psychological support services, where they can sign up for a consultation in two clicks”.

In the course of their work, the researchers became convinced that it is necessary to raise students’ awareness of mental health. In other words, they need to comprehend the issue, not be afraid, and know where to seek help.

It was decided to develop special training programs for ‘psychological education’. By the way, training programs will also be developed for teachers who need to be aware of how to work with young people who show signs of stress disorders.

“Together with the specialists of the Faculty of Psychology and psychological service of the university, we have already designed a special program consisting of four modules”, explained the PI. “We plan to ‘pilot’ and implement it.

Self-help Plus (SH+)

The researchers are convinced that as many people as possible should master self-help skills. That is why Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv joined the All-Ukrainian Mental Health Program initiated by Olena Zelenska.  The SH+ training course developed within the framework of this program is already being taught at the university. “Our teachers have completed WHO facilitation courses and are already teaching students. We hope that in the future these students will pass on their knowledge to their peers”, the professor noted.

The researchers also approached the WHO with a proposal to conduct additional research and adapt this program specifically for the student audience. And the World Health Organization has already given ‘a green light’. “The NRFU project has launched a chain reaction of additional plans, ideas and activities. In addition, being awarded grants of the Foundation is a sign of quality for international organizations. If you are implementing a project for the grant funds of the NRFU, it means that the project is of high quality”, she added.

Science diplomacy

The project is being implemented by a multidisciplinary team that includes medical psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers, economists, including young people. For example, one of the project’s implementers is a graduate student of the Faculty of Economics who studies how mental health affects various areas of human life. “We decided to investigate how mental health affects a student’s productivity and how it may affect his/her performance in the future. This is the first research of its kind, no one has ever investigated this topic before”, emphasized the PI.

The project’s implementers have recently spoken about their work and the importance of youth mental health at the University of Toronto. “The presentation was prepared together with the youth, students prepared an extremely interesting presentation, found photos of them studying in the subway, in shelters. Toronto was amazed that during the war Ukrainians were thinking about the future, about the country’s economic potential”, said the professor. ”We explained that if we do not invest in mental health today, then tomorrow it will have negative consequences for the state.  People are the country’s greatest wealth, and we need to invest in their health, growth and support”.