Home Society & Culture How the British Public Can Help Heal the Trauma of War

How the British Public Can Help Heal the Trauma of War

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The UK’s reaction to the homes for Ukraine scheme is an unprecedented response to an unusual situation. More than 100,000 people have already signed up to provide homes for Ukrainian refugees within the first day. The pandemic brought us into a world community of shared experiences.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott looks at how we show our loving connection to each other in ways we have not before. By sharing our homes, opening our hearts, and showing compassion, we can help these families in their healing process and mitigate against the need for specialist psychological help in the vast majority of cases.

Our nation’s generosity will likely grow as we see the first children and mothers supported by this scheme arrive in the UK from Monday 21st March. In a few weeks, the government will open the program to the community and faith-based groups, targeting other highly vulnerable refugee groups more effectively, including those with learning disabilities, disabilities.

This is the first time a refugee scheme has offered support to the most vulnerable, with the first wave of those helped to be almost exclusively children and their mothers. In Ukraine, due to the conscription of men of fighting age, families have been forced to make difficult choices to split up to get their children to safety. 

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: ‘It can’t be overstated that the most important thing the Ukrainian refugees will need to overcome the shocking events they will have been through is a kind, compassionate and loving welcome, a welcome that is not ever going to be available from civil servants but is in abundance from the public on this issue. To know and experience safety for your children after losing that safety to war is a most extraordinary gift that ordinary British folk are best able to offer.’

How we can help ease transition shock

The refugees that come will bring with them what we call signs of transition shock; the shocking and sudden removal without consent of all that was normal and every day in their lives, be it work, school, friendships and family. With this, all the daily routines that gave life structure and purpose have gone, but we can help offer them back.

The key needs we can as the public offer that are evidenced to have the most impact are a safe home environment, a place to rebuild the structure and routine essential to make life meaningful and manageable, local knowledge about schools, doctors, and support to access them, guidance on where the shops are to buy food, a place to cook and feed our kids, facilities for washing clothes, sanitary products for women, nappies and some way to meet personal hygiene needs. 

These are the essentials of our lives, and from that, we can build everything else. As parents, we need to know our kids are safe, we can feed and clothe them, protect them from danger, get them to school, and we, the ordinary British public, can offer this as of next week. We can take what we call an asset-based approach in psychology, assuming our refugee guests have skills and abilities that they will bring to bear and utilise if we allow them.

There may be a natural tendency to think that our guests will be traumatised and overwhelmed, and they may be experiencing this, but mostly, they want a safe bed, food, and school for their kids, and we can offer this. They will also desperately want the one thing only ordinary people will show them, some loving compassion. 

Education settings key for refugee children

The most important issue for the refugee kids’ psychological health (once the basic needs above are met) will be attending school. Getting into school and a normal routine around that is the most important psychological resilience factor. Putting this in place for most kids will avoid specialist therapies.

Again, love, compassion and tolerance are the crucial gifts the public can offer. Schools have expert support to spot children who need psychological help, so if you are worried, alert them, and they will deal with it. 

Understanding psychological distress

The psychological need of the refugees coming will often reflect the circumstances they are living in. If those circumstances can be stabilised, so will the anxiety, overwhelm, depression, etc., that they are experiencing. There may and probably will be for some refugees ongoing psychological distress as a response to the continuing war and occupation of their country, fears about friends, husbands, and relatives.

Mostly that distress will be comforted and consoled by getting back to normal and with some kindness and understanding. It is understandable if someone fears for a loved one caught up in the war and not in a place of safety; it is not a sign they are ill or in need of therapy. It is a sign that they function healthily and need compassion, care, and understanding. 

Accessing health services

There will be individuals who have needs greater than those of stabilisation of life circumstances (dealing with transition shock), or regular and understandable reactions to grief and uncertainty, and typically these distressing psychological conditions may fall into several overlapping categories:

  • Survivor’s guilt
  • Anxiety and depression beyond reactive feelings
  • PTSD (post-trauma functioning)

These issues will become apparent over time. For the majority that they affect, to some extent, just getting on with life will be healing enough, or some extra help managing anxiety, for example, through services via a GP, will be more than that adequate.

Ensuring your guests know how to access health services this way (which will be freely and legally available to all hosted via this scheme) and encouraging and supporting them in registering and visiting the GP will be all the help you need to give. Remember that your guest has made it this far and has excellent psychological resilience, and play to those strengths. 

Specialist services will be needed for a minority of people, such as access to EMDR therapy. That will become apparent over time as the severity of their trauma symptoms does not abate. The NHS has fantastic trauma services and, in the first instance, support your guest in contacting their GP or, if it’s a child helping your guest share the concerns with the child’s school.

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home.   

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