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Ukraine: Overcoming fear and trauma

Vanya playing with Tatyana. She is helping 8-year-old Vanya to overcome his trauma caused by the conflict in Ukraine. © UNICEF Ukraine/2015/Artem Getman

It will take years for many children to recover from the deep traumatic experience caused by witnessing the war in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, in the east of the country. For this reason, the European Commission is supporting UNICEF to assist children and their families in need of psycho-social support to recover a sense of normalcy in their lives and overcome the trauma. This is possible thanks to the EU Children of Peace initiative, a legacy from the Nobel Peace Prize which funds humanitarian actions to favour access to education in emergency situations. 

Veronika Vashchenko, Communication Officer, UNICEF Ukraine @Veronik_ua

In a nice cosy room filled with toys and games, Tatyana, psychotherapist and Head of the Center of Psychological Rehabilitation in Sloviansk, Donetsk region, is working with eight-year-old Vanya and his mother. The psychologist is quite nervous about the fact that a photographer is going to take photos of Vanya during their session. For the last six months of the on-going therapy, he did not allow “strangers” to enter their room, otherwise the boy would behave aggressively and impulsively. Today Vanya surprises everybody with nice mood allowing the photographer to take photos of him and his mother. He even smiles in front of the camera.

I consider these photos are the biggest achievement of my psychological work, which happened for the first time since Vanya and his mother came to my session. It means that he trusts me and I was able to build, day by day and session by session, the space of trust where Vanya can feel free with no fear to external factors or guests,” she observes.

Vanya in the Centre of Psychological Rehabilitation in Slovianks, Ukraine. © UNICEF Ukraine/2015/Artem Getman

Vanya in the Centre of Psychological Rehabilitation in Slovianks, Ukraine. © UNICEF Ukraine/2015/Artem Getman

Vanya is a special patient with a very deep psychological trauma caused by witnessing bombing and people being injured. He stayed with his family in Sloviansk when the city was occupied. He was on the balcony of his apartment when the military planes started to fly over the city. Today he still remembers the sound of shelling and cries by people running on the streets. He saw men in army uniforms who scared him so much, that he still fears playing with military-related toys.

Vanya’s family had to flee their home. Upon return to Sloviansk, his parents noticed higher aggression in Vanya, which he had never shown before: signs of twitches on his face, which he could not control, and trembling hands. Vanya is a sensitive child, and this is how his body reacted to the horrors he witnessed in Sloviansk.

Very often parents have to ask for psychological support for themselves, as they do not know how to deal with the stresses affecting their family life. Vanya's parents did not know what to do, so they asked volunteers for help. This is how they ended up at the psychological sessions with Tatyana.

At first I invited Vanya to the group sessions, but it was too difficult for him. I understood that he was deeply distressed and he needed individual support. I suggested this approach to Vanya's mother and we started to work all together," recalls Tatyana.

“One step ahead, two steps behind – this is the reality in which we work," says Tatyana. “We are a kind of a social bridge between school psychologists who can provide basic psycho-social help to children with traumatic experience, and the psychiatric hospital – with the whole fear of the word ‘hospital’ in our society,” she explains.

The Center of Psychological Rehabilitation where she works in Sloviansk is part of a UNICEF programme funded by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) in the framework of the EU Children of Peace initiative. Thanks to this, Tatyana participated in trainings organised by UNICEF with its partner Kyiv Mohyla Academy for school psychologists and psychotherapists working with internally displaced children and those living in the conflict-affected territories in eastern Ukraine. 

By the end of 2016, over 5 000 school psychologists, teachers, psychiatrists, social workers and volunteer community workers will be trained to identify, refer and provide immediate psycho-social support to children in need.

Psychological support can make a significant difference in helping children to gain resilience and find normalcy. A UNICEF survey in Donetsk ‘oblast’ showed that 37% of those attending psycho-social programming in schools were suffering from profound distress. Following participation in the UNICEF's programme, the number of children still facing significant distress was reduced to 11 %.

On-going psychological support to children in eastern Ukraine is a major component of UNICEF's emergency response as much as improving their access to education.

Within the EU Children of Peace initiative in Ukraine, over 50 000 children will get psycho-social support to strengthen their resilience and participate in the school- and community-based programmes equipping them with the skills needed to live peacefully. 

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