Since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Valentina Parobii, a psychologist and head of the Ukrainian Association for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in Ukraine, has been helping Ukrainian residents experiencing stress, anxiety and trauma, some of which she also experiences herself. Caring for others gives her the strength to continue coping with the ongoing conflict.

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“When I put on my mental health ‘helmet’, I feel stronger and more useful,” she told Davar. “Providing the service you are good at helps you cope better with this difficult situation.”

Last week, in an effort to show the world the chaos and panic currently raging among the Ukrainian public, Parobii posted a video in English from a busy train station as she tried to leave Lviv (in western Ukraine) to Poland with her children. According to her, listening, empathy and emotional support can significantly strengthen an individual’s ability to cope in a given situation. But the most important thing that caregivers can now offer people is hope.

What has been your experience so far with the war?

“Two weeks ago while we were still in Kyiv, I was very worried about the potential conflict that would happen, so I took my children out of school and we drove west to stay with my mother in Lviv.

“It is very challenging to be a mother in this situation [of armed conflict]. Before my son was born in 2008, I was always at the heart of things; I was politically active, I took part in the ‘Orange Revolution’ demonstrations in 2004 as a student [protesting the presidential run-off vote between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych]. But when you become a mother, you start to be more careful. Children become the top priority, and when there is a threat, you want to bring them to a safe place. If I didn’t have the kids, I would not have come here [to Lviv].”

“It is especially hard because my husband stayed in Kyiv to take care of his elderly parents. It’s very hard that he’s not here with us – we care about him very much. But we try to stay optimistic, he is confident, and sends us selfies with our cat. That way we know everything is fine.

“On the first day of the war, five days ago, an airport and a military base outside the city were bombed. We heard the explosions, and we heard alarms all day and we were in bomb shelters. Since then, there have been no assaults. I cannot say that it is not safer here in Lviv in relation to what is happening in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, or civilian areas across the country.”

What have people in other areas experienced?

“There are parts of Ukraine that have been at war for eight years already, in Donbas in the east, Donetsk and Luhansk are where the separatist governments are.

“My best friend and colleague for example, left the Donbas region with only two suitcases and her young kids just a few years ago and fled east to Kyiv. I feel so bad for her, because she just started to settle down and build a new life in the capital. Now she had to run away again.

“Over the years many people have been forced to leave eastern Ukraine. Donetsk, Luhansk, and more places. Soldiers died there, and they also returned home with post-trauma. Children lost their parents. For years we have been working with both civilians and soldiers from the Donbas, in the hospitals too. This is a recurring Ukrainian trauma.

“I remember my great-grandmother telling me how she had to escape from her home to a safe place, and how she put all her things in a blanket and carried them on her back, with an infant boy and my three-year-old grandmother, and how they lost their little son.”

Did you try fleeing the country?

“A friend of mine from Spain knows some people in Poland who offered for us to stay with them, and yesterday we tried to travel to Poland by train. We could not get on the train because it was so full. We waited another five hours with hundreds of people and in the end, several trains were canceled.

“My kids are not toddlers, but they are still young. My youngest is ten and the eldest is 13. It was so cold, but they were very determined that we would get on the train, and wanted to stay outside on the platform instead of waiting inside the station. After waiting outside for two hours, they broke down and said they could no longer bear the cold. So we went inside, and could not get on the train. But there were people waiting outside all night.”

“We try to mobilize all the tools we have to help people emotionally and mentally”

What are you, the psychologists and therapists in Ukraine, doing these days?

“There is nothing really organized. People just do what they can, reaching out to patients or helping out in other ways.

“Some of my colleagues donate money. There are others who feel like they must go to the army and join the fighting; a great many of my friends have done that. Many also went on to join as army psychologists. We try to mobilize all the tools we have to help people, civilians and soldiers, emotionally and mentally, as much as we can.

“I personally work as an educational psychologist in academic settings. So of course all the educational programs I do have stopped. This week I was supposed to run a program with a group of students on sexuality. And of course it’s not the most relevant at the moment given the situation. So now I and some of my colleagues are trying to make available to the public information about emotional coping, and spread the word about our availabilities, so that people can contact us when they need mental help coping with the situation.”

Do you feel the need for your support as therapists?

I feel it is very necessary. Sometimes the simple support, the listening, even just hearing a soft, slow and attentive voice, creates a huge impact on our internal system. The little things can be very significant, and we need to make them as accessible as possible.

“The help we give now is not really the help of a professional therapist to a suffering patient, it is more a mental help given between equals, at eye level. Some people also work on giving simple and effective tips for dealing with the situation or dealing with the children in this situation, making coping cards, how to immediately deal with various difficulties.”

What hardships are you encountering among the public you are helping?

“There is a wide range of emotions. People, emotionally speaking, have a whole array of responses, depending on their emotional state, their instincts, their experiences and coping mechanisms.

“It ranges from cases of stress, feelings of instability stemming from the war, to more vulnerable cases – dealing with anxiety attacks, trauma and sometimes even post-trauma.

“Many times there are also physical reactions to stress. Last night for example, I only slept for one hour because my blood pressure was really high, and my heart started beating fast. But still the body responds to stress. To deal with stress the body needs stability, support.”

But what do you do now, when there is no stability?

“I think the most important thing for us is to do is spread hope. Hope is something very central that helps people survive.

“In recent days, I have been telling my colleagues that we are also soldiers, only in the field of mental coping. While it is not like recruiting doctors and health professionals to the military in time of war, we feel that we too are recruited in a certain way, from our ethical stance.”

“Going into action and helping others is always better than being stuck and feeling helpless”

How do you feel as a professional, as a therapist, experiencing for yourself this traumatic event with everyone else?

“We try together to also support each other. We meet, especially on Zoom, within the association in Ukraine, and there is a lot of willingness on the part of our colleagues in the world to help.

“We turn to a lot of psychological and therapeutic organizations outside of Ukraine for help, both in terms of volunteering, and also so that they can lobby their governments to send as much help as possible. Both for the army and for civilians' mental health and on other levels. We receive a lot of support from Europe, and also from our association in Israel.”

“I worry for the children; they haven’t had regular studies for two years” 

What do you think you will continue to face in the coming days, and perhaps in the more distant future?

“No one yet really knows how it will all end, or when, so it's hard to say things right now.

“But I think Israelis know very well that post-trauma, PTSD, is a very common condition in the long run in such cases. Of course not everyone experiences it, it very much depends on everyone's psyche, support, personality and biology, but I'm sure we'll have to deal with it.

“Besides, for two weeks now there is no school in all of Ukraine. It all comes after the pandemic, when there have been no regular studies for almost two years. I do not know when there will be studies, how they will return, and I am very worried about the education system, my personal children and their future, I think it is causing huge damage.

“But still, I think there is a lot of light. I see a lot of support both from the world and within Ukrainian society. This light is very bright in the greatest darkness, and there is much light visible in the distance.”

This article was translated from Hebrew by Zak Newbart.