Ukraine: Buildings Can Be Rebuilt but Mental Health Will Need Longer Investments
Jarno Habicht WHO Country Representative in Ukraine and Anil Soni, WHO Foundation CEO
More than 100 days into this war, mental health demands our attention now more than ever. As the war in Ukraine unfolds, it is revealing the often invisible but no less serious impacts on people’s mental health. Buildings can be rebuilt, but mental health will need longer investments and focus for generations to come.
We recently heard from First Lady Olena Zelenska who made an impassioned address at last month’s World Health Assembly, where she made clear the burden of significant stress and traumatic events on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing.
Today, 42 million people – the entire population of Ukraine – are facing enormous stressful events and uncertainty, with many witnessing violence, and millions forcibly displaced. People’s mental health and wellbeing are severely affected by life-threatening events that they never expected to witness in their lifetime.
Over a quarter of Ukraine’s population – more than 13 million people – have been displaced by the war with nearly 8 million in the country and 6 million have left Ukraine now.
Left with little choice and to save their lives, people are forced to move, experiencing sudden traumatic events, disconnection with family and friends, and losing homes and livelihoods, all with reduced access to services they once relied upon – health, education, and social. If that isn’t bad enough, those able to flee are left to carry the additional fear about the futures of loved ones who remain in conflict areas.
Currently, over 16,000 people with moderate to severe mental health conditions face shortages of essential medicines, with access to support also being constrained by the ongoing war. And looking forward, every day the war continues adds more people needing mental health care to the growing list of health needs. That’s why urgent support is even more critical.
Roughly 300 health facilities are in conflict areas, and additional hundreds are in changed areas of control, which leaves the health facilities vulnerable to damage and severe disruptions in critical services, including mental health care.
With patients already going through the stress of being treated for conflict-related injuries or longer-term conditions like cancer, there is the added risk that the hospital they are in – once a safe sanctuary – could be attacked at any moment. This is keeping every child, patient, and health care worker in a constant state of anguish at a moment where recovery is the most important priority.
The total number of WHO reported attacks on healthcare is over 320, while authorities report double higher numbers. These horrendous attacks on hospitals, patients, staff, and ambulances, not only lead to injury and loss of life but reduces access to the life-saving medicines and care, that Ukrainian people so urgently need. Perhaps worst of all, they rob people of hope for a better, safer, and healthier future.
For those living outside of Ukraine, if you call an ambulance, you know it’ll come. If you need access to medicine, you can go to a pharmacy. If you need a safe space to care for a family member, you have it. But Ukrainians no longer have that guarantee.
We have also looked back at what services these healthcare facilities provided and how many people benefited from them. In 2021, a quarter of a million Ukrainians could receive care in those facilities every month. A stark reminder of why peace and health are so inextricably linked.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is doing everything it can to support the physical and mental health of everyone affected by the current humanitarian emergency in Ukraine.
We are supporting people no matter who or where they are by ensuring time-critical, life-saving assistance and access to emergency and essential health services. This alongside, supporting and strengthening the health system’s ability to cope with and recover from, this crisis. WHO supports a range of mental health and psychosocial support services in Ukraine, as well as building the capacity of frontline workers (health, social and humanitarian workers) in managing their own stress while supporting others.
You can support this effort. WHO says $147m is urgently needed to fund the large-scale emergency response to deliver urgent healthcare and support the immediate physical and mental health needs of people affected by the war. We urge individuals and businesses to come together as a global community to give what they can to support those in need.
We have seen the resilience, bravery, and strength of the Ukrainian people, and we know that when the conflict ends Ukrainians will return, hospitals will be rebuilt, families reunited, and homes restored. We will be there every step of the way to provide vital healthcare support to those in Ukraine and refugee-hosting countries, both now and for as long as necessary.