Mental health support in crisis
By March 2022, the war in Ukraine displaced 6.5 million people internally and caused 3.5 million refugees to flee to neighbouring countries. According to UNICEF, 1.5 million of them were children. One of the key focuses of our response was mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). Mobile teams of psychologists provided MHPSS services to 17,000 people in Ukraine – both children and parents.
In Poland, we added “TeamUp” to the range of activities offered. Developed by WarChild Holland, this psychosocial initiative is designed for working with unaccompanied minors in emergency situations, encouraging them to process emotions through play and other movement-based activities. It has already been used successfully by SOS Children’s Villages in Greece, Italy and Sweden and this year was adapted in the context of the war, providing structure and a social network to displaced children and young people and thus reducing stress on caregivers.
Supporting the mental health of parents
What is undeniable is that the more emotionally and mentally healthy the parent, the higher the likelihood the child will have a safe and nurturing environment to grow up in. As Aleksandra Sikorska, SOS Children’s Villages psychologist in Poland, explains: “When caregivers are scared or worried, children are scared and worried even more.” Every day we see this in action in our programmes – the better equipped parents are to navigate stressors, the less stress and negative experience the children take on.
Protective childhood experiences can have just as much cumulative impact over time as adverse ones. Experiencing unconditional love, having friends, being part of a community and being able to learn in an enriching environment are all examples of factors that can help mitigate the harm of childhood adversity. According to an article published in ChildTrends, “research shows the strongest protective factor linked with resilience to childhood trauma is the reliable presence of a sensitive, nurturing, and responsive adult.” This is why it is so vital to restore the systems of protection – relationships and resources – that will help both children and adults develop their resilience in the face of trauma.
This holds as true in large-scale disasters as it does in crises occurring at the level of a single person or family. For children and adults who are forced to flee their home, this means providing them with timely access to mental health support and stress-relieving activities and restoring children’s access to education and social interactions as soon as possible. For parents who are finding it difficult to provide the care and support their children need, this means access to counselling for unresolved trauma, parenting skills development, or economic supports. For children who can’t live with their parents, this means providing supportive, enriching environments where they can form attachments and build trust.
While governments and policymakers can and should address social programmes and other systemic solutions, we can all contribute to restoring and nurturing the relationships that protect the futures of children and young people growing up alone.