It’s been 9 months. How are Ukrainian Citizens Coping?
The Ukrainian people continue to suffer violence and displacement as the war enters its 9th month. Recent Russian attacks were designed to demoralize the public, and it’s showing. Their suffering will leave a generational stain on the Ukrainian memory, but Ukrainians are staying resilient through belief in their nation, close relationships, and small acts of resistance.
An estimated 30% of the Ukrainian population is experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) Millions have fled the country, and those who are obligated or choose to stay live under near constant stress. For many, this means going days without sleeping or eating, hiding in basements, traveling long distances to reach safety, and feeling physically and mentally exhausted.
American author and journalist Mitzi Perdue visited Ukraine in August. Driving from Lviv to Kyiv, she noticed “an enormous number of car wrecks” littering the road. According to the Ukrainian social worker sitting beside her, these were a product of the devastating increase in PTSD cases. “Imagine witnessing 9/11 every day, day after day,” Mitzi said. “People are on edge, maybe they’re not sleeping right, and one of the symptoms of it is car accidents.”
Some Ukrainians are also taking advantage of mobile counseling services and the 24/7 emotional support hotline offered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). One IOM psychologist attested that the children she counsels “draw tanks, weapons, grenades” and “can draw down to the last detail how the missiles strike.” Many adults have also suffered increased rates of crime, domestic violence, and losses of homes and loved ones.
Despite all this suffering, many news outlets have commented on the Ukrainian people’s incredible resilience. Instead of the disparaging effect Putin intended, the Russian President’s recent barrage of missiles seemed to unify and infuriate Ukrainian civilians. The vast majority of Ukrainians believe their country will win the war and patriotism is on the rise.
Some of this resilience is born from familiarity. Most of the adult population in Ukraine remembers victories in the 2004 and 2014 revolutions. Less than 10 years ago they were fighting off Russian invaders in grueling trench-style warfare over a 250-mile front line. They know what it means to suffer and survive, and those experiencing experiencing their second mass displacement are often the first to volunteer to help, encourage others, and refuse to give up.
Social support is also a key determinant in Ukrainian resilience. A study of Ukrainian refugees found that relying on family, friends, and hosts was the strongest coping strategy for most people. The kindness and patience of foreign hosts is making a difference, and access to phones and means of connecting with disparate family members is proving critical for morale.
Everyday citizens are also resisting occupation in small, but powerful ways. Those in Russian occupied territory have dismantled road signs, stacked sandbags in the streets, and given misleading directions to occupiers. One Ukrainian woman confronted a Russian soldier and tried to put sunflower seeds in his pocket, saying the flowers would grow when the soldiers died on the land. Cumulatively, these acts help weaken the resolve of Russian soldiers and demonstrate the sense of personal agency that is critical for developing resilience during hardship.
Resisting despair can also manifest in smaller ways. Throughout her trip in Ukraine, Mitzi Perdue was surprised to see so many women wearing cheery red nail polish. Whether she was in a police station, grocery store, or in line at the Polish border, she said, “It seemed as if 90% of the women had manicures. This was shocking to me. If you’re under that much stress, how could you?” Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent known for his work on surviving human atrocities, hypothesized that this gesture of beauty and normalcy was a way of resisting Russian demoralization. As Mitzi put it, telling Putin to “go do something anatomically impossible to yourself.”
The Ukrainian people are suffering. They are watching their family members die, their homes be destroyed, and their communities be dismantled. In spite of this, their resilience is beautiful, powerful, and something that the global community needs to reinforce. By providing access to community resources, communication, mental health support, and opportunities, we can stand with Ukrainians as they defend their homes and resist despair.
If you are interested in supporting Ukrainian refugees, please consider giving to the NGO Poland 4 You which operates the Modlinska Refugee Center in Warsaw, Poland. You can find more information about how they are empowering refugees on their website.