Ukraine’s unreported catastrophe – and how to address it

A child carrying a teddy bear, holding their parent's hand,

Recently, our CEO Mark Waddington visited our brave team in Ukraine. Here are Mark’s reflections following the visit. 

Alongside Russia’s invasion and the associated devastation, there is a largely unreported catastrophe happening in Ukraine.  

Currently, news coverage rightly reports on the missiles and drones damaging Ukraine’s energy and water infrastructure. Both are fundamental in enabling Ukrainians to be able to heat their homes, hospitals, schools and places of work. Blackouts are already impacting hundreds of thousands of people. Here in Kyiv, the Mayor is warning of a likely total blackout. A bone-bitingly cold winter is closing in, and the darkness with it. This will be especially difficult for children. It impacts their ability to study and play and is a particular threat to their health.

But what is being under-reported and overlooked is a crisis of catastrophic proportions: child trauma.

More than two-thirds of Ukraine’s children have been uprooted, dislocated from the familiarity of their communities, and displaced. Many children have endured shelling, rocket, drone and missile attacks, thousands have been injured, hundreds killed, and many more continue to live with the threat of all this on a daily basis. In a lot of the settlements in the Kyiv Region, as elsewhere, children have experienced the brutality of Russian occupation. 

Meanwhile, we hear that 95% of the 100,000 children once trapped in Ukraine’s orphanage system (many of whom already suffer with mental health issues caused by years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect) have been rushed back to their ill-equipped families with absolutely no support. These children are the least able to cope with the adversity of trauma brought on by the war, because of the impact of the institutionalisation they have suffered.

All this results in millions of Ukrainian children living with debilitating trauma. Some now find it difficult to speak. Anxiety and fear of death for themselves and their parents, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harming and bed-wetting are common. Some children commit acts of violence because they struggle to manage the trauma within. In too many cases, trauma impedes children’s physical and educational development. An entire generation of Ukraine’s young people is being profoundly affected by trauma, and this will have tragic, lifelong consequences for them, as well as for their families and communities.

But there are solutions. It is not too late to act.

Hope and Homes for Children, in partnership with UNICEF, is working on the front lines of this trauma crisis through a fleet of emergency mobile response units and counselling points. As you can see from the graph below, the most common request for help – above even food, clothing and medicine – is for emergency psychological assistance.

Frequency of requests to Hope and Homes for Children mobile teams for support from parents and children (May-Oct).

Hope and Homes for Children’s mobile units are getting help directly into the worst affected communities. Our psychologists are providing trauma counselling and much-needed therapy. Ranked a close second to psychological support is the need for safe spaces and supervision of play, learning and leisure activities. This support has proven essential in identifying those children who need trauma counselling and helping others with therapeutic activities like art therapy. While the children are engaged in such activities, mums and dads are provided with counselling support so that they in turn can better protect and care for their children.

Based on the foundations of this trauma and psychological assistance, we are building other forms of much-needed support. Important among them are awareness raising and education for children and parents about the dangers of unexploded ordnance and landmines: Ukraine now has more area under contamination with land mines than any other country in the world.

The landmine education pack Hope and Homes for Children is using to help keep children safe.

Of course, we are also providing material support such as clothing and bedding for the winter, as well as helping facilitate families’ access to medical care. And with the additional funds provided by the many, many people and companies who have donated so generously in support of our work with children, we are also delivering food to families. 

By folding emergency trauma and mental health services into the humanitarian response, we can maximise the impact of this material assistance while laying the ground for physical and emotional rehabilitation. This speaks directly to the future of Ukraine because, as we saw in Bosnia, trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next. There are millions of babies as yet unborn, who we can prevent from ever having to live with the consequences of secondary trauma.

The need is vast. In just Kyiv Region alone, these are the numbers of children we’ve helped:

The number of children benefitting from Hope and Homes for Children’s mobile units in Kyiv Region.

We are about to extend this into the Kharkiv Region through our local partners, and we are commencing the next phase of our programme in Dnipropretrovsk Oblast, which I will post about shortly.

Collectively, this work not only provides vital humanitarian support while helping to prevent the impact of trauma from having lifelong consequences, it also keeps families together by helping them to cope and so stops children from being taken from them and placed in special protection. This is important because Ukraine has a culture of locking up vulnerable children in harmful institutions – we cannot allow this to ever be repeated. This requires us to ensure that the funds being allocated to the significant reconstruction costs must not be used to rebuild the orphanage system or a vast estate of smaller residential care facilities in its place – institutionalisation by stealth! This would only serve to entrench trauma among those children and punish them for it.

By investing in families, we are showing that harmful orphanages are not necessary. This approach delivers better outcomes for children and is far more cost-effective than locking children up. These really are affordable, effective solutions that can be employed if we act quickly.

Indeed, if we don’t shine a light on the importance of funding the kind of trauma and mental health work we and others are doing, all of the food, clothing and medicine being shipped to Ukraine will ultimately have limited value.

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