Sleep disorders, eating disorders, anxiety, loneliness: the war that has been raging for almost two years in Ukraine is eating away at the psychological health of children and adolescents. “All generations of Ukrainians will be affected by the experience of war for the rest of their lives,” says Oksana Pysareva, a psychologist who works with Ukrainian children. However, she wants her young patients not to see themselves as victims of the war led by Russia.
“War is part of our lives, we must learn to live with it, without becoming victims,” underlines the psychologist, based in kyiv, during a video interview with The duty. An approach – centered on the ability to act, self-respect and dignity – which is also that of the Voices of Children foundation, for which Oksana has worked since the start of the large-scale invasion.
This empowerment is crucial, explains Odarka Kozak, head of communications for the foundation. “The children know that our army is fighting for their lives and that we will have a future. And they also know that they are capable of fighting for themselves, for their mental health and their future. »
By giving new tools to her young patients, Oksana Pysareva hopes that they will be able to say to themselves: “I am living this experience of war, I have sometimes suffered a lot, I have been immersed in difficult conditions, but I know that I was able to fight and get through it. I have respect for myself for that, and I move on with my life. »
This is why young Ukrainians must live their childhood now, without putting it on hold during the war, she said. Voices of Children also organizes summer camps to allow children to make friends and have fun. The foundation — for which around a hundred psychologists work — also offers psychological and psychosocial support, in groups or individually, to children and their families affected by war. Since the start of the large-scale invasion, some 70,000 children and their parents have benefited from the organization’s services.
From shock to anxiety
In this war which has dragged on for almost two years, the requests for help made by young Ukrainians have evolved over time. At the beginning, they were mainly linked to the shock experienced by the Russian invasion. “Some children had panic attacks, others were no longer able to eat or sleep,” says Oksana. Then other evils appeared.
“Many children feel anxious all the time. » Some started biting their nails or scratching their skin. “Children and adolescents constantly feel depressed and frustrated,” continues the psychologist. They lose interest in their studies or abandon their activities, without understanding why. They say they don’t have the energy for anything anymore. »
Others experience loneliness because their friends have left or they themselves have been displaced within or outside the country, sometimes separated from part of their family. Children have developed eating disorders. “Before, we mainly treated girls. Now we have more boys and children as young as 8 or 9 years old. » Others began harming themselves or contemplating suicide.
How to sleep?
But above all, children and adults alike have difficulty sleeping in their country at war. Oksana notably followed an 8-year-old girl who had been unable to sleep since a building near her home in kyiv burned down during an air attack. “She refused to sleep at home in her own bed. She only wanted to sleep in a shelter underground. She said she was afraid, if she fell asleep, she would not hear the sirens that warn of an imminent attack.
The night before the interview with The duty, Oksana, like all residents of kyiv, was woken up several times by sirens. “You don’t get used to these sleepless nights,” says the psychologist. After holed up in corridors (more solid places) or in shelters, the adults left for work the next morning and the children for school. “After going through all this stress, we have to pull ourselves together and continue our lives. This is a real challenge for each of us. »
Exposed to this violence from a young age, Ukrainian children are already taming hatred. “It’s impossible to imagine that they won’t hate [les Russes], argues Oksana. The Russians have poured a lot of pain into every family. But hating our enemy will not also prevent them from loving with all their hearts. »
Emotions that children discover at the same pace as they redefine the value they place on life — now constantly threatened. “The children who succeed in transforming this tragedy into an experience will have gained confidence, creativity and adaptability,” emphasizes Oksana.