EU cities mobilise to address mental health toll of war on Ukrainians

10 September 2022

This article has been published on by Silvia Ellena 

European cities and towns are facilitating access to mental health care professionals and psychological support for displaced Ukrainians, on top of practical measures relating to education and housing.

As the war nears its seventh month, refugee activists and mental health experts have also warned that the mental health toll on those who have fled the country must not be overlooked.

According to experts, the sudden displacement caused by the conflict has increased the prevalence of mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

In April, the European Commission mobilised €9 million from the EU4Health Programme to aid the Red Cross and other NGOs in offering mental health and trauma support for Ukrainian refugees.

“It is important to see the situation of displaced people in a holistic way, including the need of mental health support,” Commission officials told EURACTIV.

According to the officials, fourteen EU countries currently offer mental health services and psychosocial support to Ukrainian citizens.

However, while “our governments and international organisations do offer a lot of solutions, some issues cannot be solved with a top-down approach,” said Maria Trybus, a young activist from the Polish Youth Council.

In her view, cities and civil society can help refugees by “creating safe spaces where they can talk about their needs, their worries.”

Trybus co-founded ‘You Have A Friend In Me‘, an online platform connecting young Poles and Ukrainians.

The idea behind it is to “create a substitute of normality as well as some sort of impromptu safety net,” she explained during the World Urban Forum in Katowice.

Some European municipalities have also taken the initiative to provide psychological support to refugees, although health competences generally fall on the national government.

For instance, the city of Milan supports Ukrainian refugees hosted in municipal structures through assistance teams, including psychologists, to address basic needs and mental well-being.

“This allows to monitor the situation and identify possible situations of malaise and unease requiring specific assistance,” Lamberto Bertolé, councillor for welfare and health at Milan municipality, told EURACTIV.

Moreover, the city has organised activities with a local theatre to help Ukrainians process the trauma caused by the war in their home country.

The municipality relies on a network of associations to reach those hosted by families or relatives.

“The essential thing is to reach people because it’s not granted that demand and offer will meet,” the councillor said, adding that offering services in the Ukrainian language are crucial.

In Slovakia, the League for Mental Health hired 100 displaced Ukrainians to provide mental health services due to the limited number of Ukrainian speakers living in the country and the decreased capacities of the mental health-care system. However, hiring Ukrainian professionals is also helping to build trust.

“Refugees tend to distrust the new environment. When they meet fellow Ukrainians, they tend to feel safer,” the organisation’s director Andrej Vršanský told EURACTIV.

Meanwhile, at the European level, the EU executive has created a webpage in Ukrainian and Russian, listing national ministries and health agencies to “make sure that the refugees are made aware of these services” and facilitate their access.

However, Milanese councillor Bertolé said local authorities also have a crucial role in informing refugees, in avoiding “having services without people and people without services.”

According to Vršanský, civil society and local communities “have been much more efficient than any government support.”

“A good response system should empower and support local communities to help the refugees,” he said.

Yet, budgetary constraints and lack of adequate resources can limit the municipalities’ actions, Bertolé said, adding that Milan only managed to offer its assistance to Ukrainian refugees thanks to donations.

In his view, a “more structured approach” to funding is necessary to ensure local authorities have the necessary resources.

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