Dr Robert London

Ukraine and PTSD: How psychiatry can help

Publish date: April 15, 2022

By Robert T. London, MD

The war in Ukraine is resulting in a devastating loss of life, catastrophic injuries, and physical destruction. But the war also will take an enormous mental health toll on millions of people, resulting in what I think will lead to an epidemic of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Think about the horrors that Ukrainians are experiencing. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced to locations inside and outside of the country. People are being forced to leave behind family members, neighbors, and their pets and homes. In one recent news report, a Ukrainian woman who left Kyiv for Belgium reported having dreams in which she heard explosions. Smells, sounds, and even colors can trigger intrusive memories and a host of other problems. The mind can barely comprehend the scope of this human crisis.

Ukrainian soldiers are witnessing horrors that are unspeakable. Doctors, emergency service workers, and other medical professionals in Ukraine are being exposed to the catastrophe on a large scale. Children and youth are among the most affected victims, and it is difficult to predict the impact all of this upheaval is having on them.

The most important question for those of us who treat mental illness is “how will we help devastated people suffering from extreme trauma tied to death, dying, severe injuries, and torture by the invading soldiers?”

I have been treating patients with PTSD for many years. In my lifetime, the devastation in Ukraine will translate into what I expect will be the first overwhelming mass epidemic of PTSD – at least that I can recall. Yes, surely PTSD occurred during and after the Holocaust in the World War II era, but at that time, the mental health profession was not equipped to recognize it – even though the disorder most certainly existed. Even in ancient times, an Assyrian text from Mesopotamia (currently Iraq) described what we would define as PTSD symptoms in soldiers, such as sleep disturbances, flashbacks, and “low mood,” according to a 2014 article in the journal Early Science and Medicine.

The DSM-5 describes numerous criteria for PTSD mainly centering on trauma exposing a person to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a variety of assaults, including direct exposure or witnessing the event. However, in my clinical experience, I’ve seen lesser events leading to PTSD. Much depends on how each individual processes what is occurring or has occurred.

What appears to be clear is that some key aspects of PTSD according to the DSM-5 – such as trauma-related thoughts or feelings, or trauma-related reminders, as well as nightmares and flashbacks – are likely occurring among Ukrainians. In addition, hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response seem to be key components of PTSD whether or not the cause is a major event or what one would perceive as less traumatic or dramatic.

I’ve certainly seen PTSD secondary to a hospitalization, especially in care involving ICUs or cardiac care units. In addition, I’ve had the occasion to note PTSD signs and symptoms after financial loss or divorce, situations in which some clinicians would never believe PTSD would occur, and would often diagnose as anxiety or depression. For me, again from a clinical point of view, it’s always been critical to assess how individuals process the event or events around them.

We know that there is already a shortage of mental health clinicians across the globe. This means that, in light of the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Ukrainians affected by PTSD, a one-to-one approach will not do. For those Ukrainians who are able to find safe havens, I believe that organized medicine, including the various psychiatric/psychological associations in Europe as well as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, need to establish group care using telemedicine to reach large numbers of people. PTSD symptoms can be debilitating, and the mental health community needs to begin putting supports in place now to address this trauma.

Specifically, proven cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and guided imagery should be used to begin helping some of these people recover from the unbelievable trauma of war. For some, medication management might be helpful in those experiencing nightmares combined with anxiety and depression. But the main approach and first line of care should be CBT and guided imagery.

PTSD symptoms can make people feel like they are losing control, and prevent them from rebuilding their lives. We must do all we can in the mental health community to destigmatize care and develop support services to get ahead of this crisis. Only through medical, psychiatric, and health care organizations banding together using modern technology can the large number of people psychologically affected by this ongoing crisis be helped and saved.

Dr. London is a practicing psychiatrist who has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of “Find Freedom Fast” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). He has no conflicts of interest.