War in Ukraine: UNICEF warns of devastating dangers to children’s mental health
Ten weeks into the war in Ukraine, UNICEF said it was urgently stepping up efforts to provide vulnerable children with specialist and psychosocial support, as mental health needs in the country are “ huge”.
“We anticipate that the numbers for all forms of violence against children will certainly number in the tens of thousands,” said Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF Regional Child Protection Adviser for Europe and Central Asia.
By February 24, orphanages, boarding schools and other youth institutions in Ukraine housed more than 91,000 children, about half of whom were disabled.
Today, only about a third of that number have returned home, including those evacuated from the east and south of the country, according to the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF.
“The impact of war on these children is particularly devastating,” Greenberg said, speaking to reporters in Geneva via Zoom from Lviv. “Tens of thousands of children living in institutions or foster families were returned to their families, many of them hastily, as the war began. Many have not received the care and protection they need, especially children with disabilities”.
Direct experience of violence
Condemning the fact that hundreds of young people have already been killed in bombardments, the UN agency warned that others had suffered severe mental trauma from ‘direct experience’ of violence, both physical and sexual. .
While insisting that many children will ‘bounce back’ if they can return to school and begin to see some form of ‘normalization’ in their lives, Mr Greenberg insisted it was more important than ever to ensure that Ukrainian social service personnel were reassured and encouraged to stay and help.
He also noted that a “smaller but significant number” would likely develop post-traumatic stress disorder between two and four months after being traumatized.
“Since February 24, UNICEF and our partners have provided more than 140,000 children and their caregivers with mental health and psychosocial services,” he continued. “But a vast majority of that, 95%, is direct engagement with children and trained psychologists.”
The UN agency’s priorities include increasing investment in local mental health NGOs to help young people still in care, in support of Ukrainian government policy.
But it’s not easy to find enough professionals to help, “because social workers, child psychologists and other professionals are also affected by this conflict,” Greenberg continued.
“If you start to do the math, there are children who stay in institutions that have not been evacuated either inside or outside (the country), and there are children in families foster care whose payments have been temporarily halted, and there are children in guardianship, a significant number. So when you layer that, the number of children in need who were vulnerable before the crisis and whose vulnerabilities have now been accelerated is incredibly high.”
Across Ukraine, UNICEF deployed 56 mobile units to provide specialized health services to traumatized children. There are also 12 “mobile violence teams in the east”, where fighting continues, Greenberg said. “To date, these mobile teams in the east have worked with 7,000 cases of women and children in terms of responding to specific queries and reports related to violence which the mobile team then follows up.”