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Trauma in Ukraine

Since the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine last March, thousands of people have been killed in the ensuing conflict and close to a million have been displaced or have fled to neighboring countries. Psychologists in Ukraine find themselves practicing and teaching in the midst of armed conflict accompanied by mass traumatization of civilians, where some mental health facilities have been completely destroyed, and no one has money to pay for their services.

To help mental health professionals rebuild the psychological health and stability of their communities, Elena Cherepanov, PhD, an expert in global mental health and community trauma, has conducted psychological first aid training via Skype for mental health professionals and students in Ukraine.

The training centers on her Community-Based Psychological Recovery method, which promotes community recovery and the prevention of violence and further trauma. “Preventing post-trauma violence is far more effective on the community level when the whole traumatized community comes together and takes the responsibility for psychological recovery,” she says.

Cherepanov believes that people can cope with almost any event if they have strong personal and community support. To that end, her trainings teach mental health providers to identify sources of resilience and strength in their communities, such as historical experience of survivorship, culture, traditions, intact infrastructure and community self-reliance. She also  teaches them how to mobilize community support systems through town forums and how to identify and work with community leaders.

Born in Russia, Cherepanov’s passion for trauma work began in 1988 when, as professor of psychology at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, she worked with survivors of the Spitak earthquake, which devastated rural communities in Armenia. Based on those experiences, she launched the Association for Specialists in Traumatic Stress and published the first book in the Soviet Union on post-traumatic stress — a text that is still used there today. Cherepanov’s model has beenused to train psychologists in Armenia, Chechnya, Chernobyl, Kosovo and Liberia.

She moved to the United States in 2000. She now teaches at Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she developed one of the first certificate programs in trauma studies.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the psychological roots of civil wars and their aftermath, probably because of my own family history back in Russia,” she says. “The scariest part is that these atrocities are committed by people who used to be good neighbors, friends or even family members. All my memories of horrors of civil wars that I worked with flashed back when I heard about the developing conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

To help, she reached out to the local psychological association in Ukraine and offered her expertise via Skype. Over the past year, Cherepanov has trained more than 170 psychologists, mental health workers, social workers and psychology students in Kiev and eastern Ukraine.

Many of these professionals and students are refugees themselves. So far, they have set up clinics in refugee camps, opened a hotline for mental health questions and started therapy programs for children. “People are calmer than you would expect. They say, ‘This is our country. This is our home.’” Cherepanov remains in contact with the mental health professionals and students she’s trained, offering additional guidance when she can on how to spot signs of burnout. As the conflict continues, psychology faculty in Ukraine have faced the challenge of teaching the students who can’t regularly attend classes because of travel and housing problems.

“They’re the ones in the armed conflict zone, and they have to figure out how to help themselves and others,” Cherepanov says. “From here, we can only encourage, support and share what we know. In spite of continued raging battles, professors continue teaching, students continue studying, and they’re
eager to build a sense of normalcy in their community once again.”

Article from Monitor on Psychology, April 2015 issue.