The Mental Health Implications of War

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As our understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has grown, we have begun to realize the far-reaching impacts of war, violence, and conflict on mental health for those who experience trauma. Extensive research has been done on the effects of war on those who fight and the refugees. We may be less aware of the impact of conflict on those who witness it from a far distance.

Technology has created a space where the planet is more connected than ever. This connectedness can secure support for those in need, but it can also mean mental health implications for those far from the conflict zone. As more and more headlines come out with updates regarding the ongoing violence in Ukraine, let’s understand the mental health implications of war in more detail.

These are just some of the mental health implications of a modern-day war and how to manage these uncertain and upsetting times.  

How does war impact children?

War impacts children in various ways. Children in the war zone will be more affected, and conflict zones will lead to extensive Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Children who grew up during the second world war in England still remember rationing and bomb shelters which have forever altered their behaviour for daily activities such as grocery shopping.

Children are impacted by war even when they’re nowhere near it. It’s impossible to shield our kids from the news in our modern world. In classrooms across the world, kids will talk about a war they may not fully understand. Adults need to help children navigate these headlines and events to reduce the harmful impacts distant conflicts can have on a child’s mental health.

Here are some ways to talk to your kids about the news:

1. Consider their age. Be careful discussing major news events with kids younger than seven as they don’t have a concept of the size of the world yet. An act of violence in Afghanistan may have them worried about the family next door rather than recognizing the conflict as happening in a completely independent country. For this and all age groups, start by asking if they have any questions. If the child is under seven and does not, consider not discussing it further until they do. Try and stick to providing a sense of safety and reassurance vs. disclosing your anxieties, and fears — especially for younger children.  

2. Start the conversation. Kids may not feel comfortable talking to adults about their questions. They may want to act tough or feel their questions could come off as simple. Initiate the conversation, ask questions, and create a space for them to talk about the headlines in the news with you.

3. Limit your child's exposure to the news. We cannot altogether remove any exposure, but we can find ways to limit it. War and conflict are stressful for adults, so we must show our children the importance of “turning the news feed off.” Prioritize play and listen to fun music in the car instead of the news. Choose to watch a family movie, play a board game, or go for a walk instead of turning on the news right after work. All of these activities will also help you step away from the stress of a foreign conflict.

How does war impact the mental health of countries?

War and unrest affect more than the countries and people involved in the action.  

Although war and conflict cause significant stress and can lead to depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other physical health concerns, it does act as a catalyst for improvement in mental health conditions within nations both involved in the conflict and those impacted outside of the war.

For example, Ass many Syrian refugees crossed the border into Lebanon, and the population there benefited from the support introduced to health facilities, women’s centers, and schools. The overall mental health care system in Lebanon seems to have improved for refugees and the pre-existing Lebanese population.

The war between Ukraine and Russia is still developing and causing great concern for many neighbouring nations in the European Union, and anyone watching from afar. We can hope that this conflict will be resolved soon and that the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the other countries impacted will experience improvement in mental health care services.

How to take care of your mental health during times of war:

As this crisis unfolds, it can be a common thought to feel guilty because we can turn off the news and focus on our lives away from conflict. This feeling is understandable. As we become aware of another nation's suffering, we feel shame and guilt for not doing more because we aren’t suffering. However, you cannot help others if you don’t care for your health first. It’s important to stay informed, but it’s also essential to prioritize your mental health.

Here are just a few ways to take care of your mental and physical health right now as a distant war unfolds.

  • Designate time to check the news for updates and shut it off outside of these times.
  • Make sure you take care of your physical health with adequate sleep, exercise and healthy nutrition.
  • Create a feeling of control by researching ways you can help. Look for non-profit companies helping out in Ukraine and donate to support those in the cities under attack.
  • Look for the helpers. If we only focus on the bad, that’s all we’ll start to notice in life. Instead, take time to be grateful for those who’re helping: the doctors and nurses staying behind, the journalists in the line of fire reporting the truth, the civilians that have opened their homes to refugees.
  • Help refugees in your area. Look for local organizations that are helping or reach out to local Ukrainian organizations to see how you can help the families of those impacted by the conflict.

I am passionate about helping individuals and groups to develop the crucial skills needed to improve mental health. If you’re still finding that the stress, guilt, or general emotional toll of a current European conflict is becoming too much to manage, reach out for professional help, including to my organizations Dolphin KIDS which provides counselling services. Get in touch today to build the resilience you need for our modern world.

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