Meet the volunteers breaking Ukraine's trauma taboo

Ukrainians find it hard to seek psychological support. But the collective trauma in the war zone urgently needs addressing. Michiel Driebergen and Alex Masi meet volunteers who are helping to make a difference.


Psychologist Valentina Eremicheva leads a group therapy lesson at the Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation in Dzerzhynsk, near the frontline in eastern Ukraine. © Alex Masi

In every street there are damaged or burnt-out houses. The centre of the small town of Maryinka, just a stone’s throw from the pro-Russian rebel-held capital Donetsk, is deserted. Shots are fired back and forth each night. The few inhabitants, left to their own devices, seek refuge in the air-raid shelter, where the ground trembles from the force of the explosions.

‘When she sleeps, she flails her arms wildly,’ says resident Oksana Miroshnichenko of her nine-year-old daughter Alissa. ‘The minute the shooting starts I give her tranquillizer tablets.’

Recently, a psychologist visited Alissa’s school. She asked the children to draw around their hands on a piece of paper and fill the outline with all their favourite things. Alissa drew roller skates, embroidery and knitting needles. ‘This is what we must do when we’re scared,’ she explains. She puts down her picture and embraces herself, as if to hold herself together.

Valentina Eremicheva is a psychologist who works with young children, including some who have been abandoned during the war, at a rehabilitation centre in the frontline town of Dzjerdzinsk, about 40 kilometres north of Donetsk. ‘They suffer from nightmares, they wet themselves and flinch at each loud noise,’ she says. But they have a way of losing their traumas through drawing. She sometimes asks them to draw a picture of what frightens them. Soldiers and tanks often appear. ‘We then tear up these drawings into very small scraps.’

Ukrainians don’t like visiting a psychologist, says Tatjana Grida, a psychiatrist and trauma therapist in Kharkiv, the biggest city in eastern Ukraine. History is at fault here: ‘In the Soviet days, psychiatrists were used to punish people. Dissidents were declared insane in order to try and break them. Some were even subdued with medication.’ This is why there is still a taboo on psychological help. ‘The first response I get when offering help is “No thanks, I’m fine!”. Nobody wants the label of being ready for the clinic.’ Yet, she adds, there is always the danger of post-traumatic stress disorder if you don’t take the time to deal with a trauma.

Oleg Tkachenko, a chaplain from the Good News Church in Slovakisk, prays with soldiers and volunteers after meeting them in the frontline town of Maryinka, eastern Ukraine.

Alex Masi

‘You can relive traumatic events years later. You get flashbacks and you experience it all again as if it is happening for the first time. Then you become a danger to the people around you because you will try to defend yourself again. The lack of understanding in your environment leads to depression and suicide. It is a huge problem. Eastern Ukraine is collectively traumatized.’

What psychological support currently exists is provided by volunteers such as Tatjana and Valentina, and by Oleg Tkachenko, the owner of a metal-processing company and part-time chaplain in a Baptist community in Slavjansk.

‘The people are wounded emotionally,’ says Oleg. ‘Imagine, you are a citizen of a state, you have children and plans for the future, and then it all suddenly comes to an end. You’re a drop-out. Nobody cares about you any more. And you feel betrayed.’ During the church services that he organizes, Oleg prays with those who want to.

‘Imagine, you are a citizen of a state, you have children and plans for the future, and then it all suddenly comes to an end’

‘The Soviet mentality of never asking for something is deeply anchored here,’ he says. ‘People from eastern Ukraine are not used to making their needs known. We are not able to formulate why we feel depressed. We would rather suffer than ask for help.’

Oleg organizes summer camps for children, to give them a temporary reprieve from the war.

In the past year, more than 10,000 children have been on holiday trips to the countryside or to the Carpathian Mountains. He is keen to do more for them, though.

‘We want to make this help more structural, by having the children spend all their vacations away from home,’ he explains. ‘After only a few days you see them blossom.’

Alex Masi is an Italian documentary photographer and multimedia journalist, based in London, focused on women’s and children’s living conditions, health and human rights.

Michiel Driebergen is a freelance correspondent from the Netherlands, based in Krakow, covering Central Europe and Ukraine.