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ConflictsUkraine

Psychological support for Ukrainian soldiers in wartime

Mathias Bölinger
December 6, 2023

The war in Ukraine drags on. Ukraine sends psychologists to help the soldiers under unrelenting stress and exhaustion at the frontlines. DW's Mathias Bölinger visited one session in Ukraine's Donbas war zone.

https://p.dw.com/p/4ZpPG

For these soldiers on a training ground behind the frontlines, it’s not just fighting on the schedule today. Right here on the shooting range, Oleh Hukovskyy, the brigade's psychologist, has scheduled a session on mental health.

(Oleh Hukovskyy)
"The soldiers practice fighting here. So the nervous system is already at an elevated excitement level.  And that is a good environment to train certain habits."

One last shot fired, then the unit moves to a spot off the shooting range for some physical moves. 

(Oleh Hukovskyy)
"Let's do a few exercises of self-regulation. Jump lightly on the spot and shake our body. Just move and relax your body." 

Every brigade in the Ukrainian army is supposed to have a psychological support team. That would be NATO standard.  But many of the posts have remained unfilled. There aren't many specialists in the country. Oleh Hukovskyy was a practising psychiatrist and therapist before the war. Now he helps soldiers deal with exhaustion and stress. 

(Oleh Hukovskyy)
"A long exhale calms down the nervous system. It tells the body that it's time to relax and that everything is fine."

(Khrushch, unit commander)
"When I had panic attacks I found that breathing exercises really helped. You feel an inexplicable influx of stress. And you don't understand what’s happening. But when you manage to breathe calmly, it passes. I inhaled, exhaled and went back to fighting." 

Oleh Hukovskyy  started working with the army in 2014, when he was rehabilitating traumatized soldiers as they returned to civil life. He does offer individual sessions here — but it’s very different from what he did before. 

(Oleh Hukovskyy)
"I do not work here as a trauma therapist. I do not dig out trauma. Some of the PTSD symptoms are actually just combat habits: A sudden rise of stress, excessive vigilance, even nightmares, superficial sleep, these help you not to forget where you are. They might be painful, but they also motivate you."

His aim is to help the soldiers to continue to function. To give them — as he puts it — the resources to stabilize. Acceptance of the program varies. 

(Borys, soldier)
"This is not a movie, we do not perceive our job emotionally. We just fight."   

(Khrushch, unit commander)
"This is a war. Everybody needs support. Many hide their emotions; they say that they are not afraid. But in the end we are humans, you cannot hide these emotions forever. It's what it is."

Many of them will have to deal with their trauma after the war. For now, their task is to carry on.