Psychotherapy work in Ukraine


As the Russian invasion of Ukraine passed its 100th day, with little sign of an end, I interviewed Kateryna by text, a woman from eastern Ukraine who is currently volunteering to provide psychotherapy support to her countrymen and women. Her words are a reminder of the people of Ukraine, amongst whom some 14 million have been displaced and thousands killed and injured. It also reminds me of my responsibility to do what I can to try and promote peace in a war that even risks global famines and, also, nuclear escalation.

(i) You mentioned that you’re learning English to help with your next job and you had to leave your last role due to the war. Can you explain why you had to leave your job? Did the war force you to move away?

The war affected every Ukrainian without exception. The company I worked for was badly damaged, almost half of the stores destroyed by rockets and bombs. The company lost any opportunities to provide employees with jobs and pay salaries.

I became a volunteer of psychological care in 2020, when the world learned about Covid and it turned out that people are not ready mentally for social isolation. The war is a severe test for my psyche also. And I understood perfectly well how all Ukrainians suffer. At the same time, the war has united our nation like never before, we all want the same thing now. And we all are thinking in terms of categories: What can I do to be useful for our victory ?! So I decided that my knowledge, skills and experience should work for a single purpose now. And this is Save my country from the enemy!!!

(ii) You said you’re providing voluntary psychotherapy help at the moment. Could you explain who you help and what you do?

I am working with people who don’t have the mental and psychological strength anymore to withstand such a burden as war. I work with the emotional sphere, helping to cope with fear, anxiety, stress, panic, feelings of uncertainty, apathy. I help to find internal resources and stabilize the emotional condition.

(iii) Do you do the voluntary work in a team or group? How many people and how do you cooperate?

I am a member of the online psychological care platform. There are about 600 of us from all over the country. We receive written requests from customers and then distribute them among ourselves.

(iv) What techniques do you use to help people find internal resources? Do you work with people for a certain number of sessions? Are you meeting with them in physical presence or online/call?

I work in the format of video meetings. Now that the situation in my country is as aggravated as possible, and the person I am communicating with may be in a bomb shelter or under fire, I agree to any format: a phone call or even writing and voice messages.

As for the methods of work, it will be difficult for me to explain: firstly my English is not enough for this, secondly it is all very individual

(v) You said you started your psychotherapy support work during the Covid pandemic. Can you talk about your experience at that time? Were your clients mostly men, women or children? What were the most common symptoms clients raised?

I do not work with children at all, this is not my specialty. Among the people who approached me were men and women. Most people were worried about feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, fear. A lot of them were not ready for social isolation. People are not ready to stay in a closed space with themselves, not with someone. This has exacerbated pre-existing human problems that were not even directly related to Covid. Many have deteriorated relationships with a partner, family, children, relatives, because in a closed space you need to rebuild the relationship.

(vi) How does your experience helping people psychologically in 2020/21 compare to now, during war? What are the most common problems people tell you now?

I can’t even put on the same level my experience during the pandemic and my work during the war. I have never seen so much pain, fear, grief in my life. Now everyone in my country needs psychological help. And I already see how many people will get and have already gotten post-traumatic stress disorder. These horrific events are not just about the experience of each individual, they are a trauma to the whole nation, they are our future, which has already been mutilated for decades to come.

People are dying, women are losing their husbands and children, the enemy is raping and torturing my people. But we must hold on and resist, because we are fighting for our future. And I support everyone who is going through grief, loss, unbearable pain inside, I help to find strength in myself and not stop living. Because we understand why we do it. Glory to Ukraine – Glory to heroes! Slava Ukraini – Heroyam Slava!

Too emotionally possible, but I can’t do otherwise.

(vii) Could you talk about your training in psychotherapy and other healthcare? What education did you have and any other experience?

I have two full higher educations: in psychology and in personnel management. I have a master’s degree in psychology and have additional education in psychotherapy, namely in Gestalt therapy. I have been practicing psychotherapy since 2010, I also attend interventions, supervisions and personal therapy.

(viii) Your volunteering and life experiences have been extremely intense. How do you manage your own health and emotions whilst supporting others? Do you have support yourself?

I visit a psychotherapist. This is a mandatory requirement for every specialist in our field, we must have a personal psychotherapist so that our own problems do not interfere with working with the client. I always worry about my psychological health, especially now.

My task is to take care of myself first, and then help others. Otherwise, I just won’t have the resources to do it. I work with my emotions, thoughts and body – these are the main components of mental health. I reflect, follow the routine of the day, do physical exercises, give myself the opportunity to recover and relax. And even now, when there is so much grief around, I do not deny myself small joys and pleasures. My cup of coffee from a beautiful cup in the morning is already something useful for myself!

(ix) The war is in an uncertain stage with no-one knowing how long the invasion will go on for. This uncertainty must make emotional difficulties much harder. How do you work with clients to try and manage the huge uncertainty?

In fact, uncertainty accompanies us all our lives! We don’t know if the bus will hit us tomorrow and the brick may fall on our heads at any moment. But we live in the illusion of control, stability and confidence in the future. In order to overcome feelings of uncertainty, a person needs help to regain control. To show a person that there are moments left in his life that he is able to control. You can still plan. However, to accept the fact that events that are not subject to us is also very important. Man is not the center of the universe. When illusions are shattered, it is always difficult. But it is necessary to go through this, not to live in deception, but to build a healthy relationship with the environment.

(x) Huge numbers of people have left their homes and many left the country. Some, however, choose to remain. Did you speak to clients who face the dilemma to stay or go? What do these clients tell you?

Yes, there are a lot of such people. They are confused, they are very afraid to make the wrong decision. They feel responsible, they feel more than ever that they are now at a point where life can go a whole different way. They are scared, changes are not easy. Leaving home is like dying and being born again, starting to build everything again. They are afraid that they will not have enough strength for this.

(xi) Did you notice internal change or learn anything new about yourself during your therapy work?

I realized that I was much stronger than I thought and at the same time much weaker than I could have imagined. I am glad that I have the knowledge and skills. Because I have the opportunity to help now and it gives me strength, it allows me to survive these horrors. By helping someone I help myself. This is my front my weapon is my personal war. For the first time, I fully realized what it was like to be a patriot of my country.

(xii) You said you practise English for your next job. Can you share anything about your personal plans? What job will you seek and where?

I work in the field of HR and I plan to develop in this direction. Psychology helps me a lot in this profession, because it is working with people. So far I have reached certain heights and I do not want to stop. In order to apply for more serious positions, work in international companies, I need English.

(xiii) Can I ask, what is access to psychotherapy like in your country? Is there some free access or must people normally pay for services?

Psychotherapy in my country is usually a paid service. This is the same job as any other, for the services you provide you have to pay. Now in our country there are many opportunities to get at least primary free psychological help. There is also a lot of access to useful information on mental health. These are courses, webinars, books, lectures, etc. Anyone who wants to take care of their mental health will find a way to do so.

(xiv) Thanks, for taking the time. Is there anything else you’d like to share or feel is important that I didn’t ask? Perhaps, about your work, organisation, clients or country?

I would just like to add that I am proud of my country. And that there are a lot of people like me in my country. We all live by the thought of how I can be useful. And despite all the terrible consequences we have, I am happy to be Ukrainian !!!

Image courtesy of Kateryna, by Lilia Levitska
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Author: Workers' Archive

Covering sensitivity at work and beyond on my website: https://samuelaliblog.wordpress.com/

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