Calgary

Many Ukrainian Calgarians struggling with mental health amid war in Ukraine

Knowing the lives of their loved ones are at risk, many Ukrainian Calgarians are experiencing the mental health impacts of the war in Ukraine. But a Ukrainian therapist in the city says those who are struggling may not address it anytime soon, as personal distress isn’t a priority compared to the survival of family and friends.

People are experiencing anxiety, depression and insomnia but aren’t talking about it, says therapist

Ganna Zakharova, right, joins a protest to stop the war against Ukraine. She fled Crimea in 2014 when the Russian military invaded and annexed the Ukrainian territory. (Submitted by Ganna Zakharova)

The current war in Ukraine has been distressing for Ganna Zakharova. She fled Crimea in 2014 as the Russian military invaded and annexed the Ukrainian territory.

She's been watching the conflict unfold and endanger the lives of her friends and family from afar in Alberta, the place she now calls home.

On Monday, Russia announced a handful of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee Ukraine, although the evacuation routes were mostly leading to Russia and its ally Belarus, drawing criticism from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russian forces continued to pummel Ukrainian cities including Mykolaiv, south of the capital of Kyiv, indicating there would be no wider cessation of hostilities. At least 1.5 million people have now fled the country. 

"My pretty much brother is hiding from bombings and I'm here at work trying to concentrate and trying to focus, and I cry every day," says Zakharova about her cousin she grew up with.

Ganna Zakharova says many of her family and friends are in Ukraine, hiding from bombings but unwilling to leave the country because it's their home. (Submitted by Ganna Zakharova)

She says one of her friends in Kyiv has started to fear the darkness, as that's when the bombings begin. Another friend has fled to a town further west, unwilling to leave the country because it's her home. Still another is worried about the safety of her one-year-old daughter.

Hanna Zavrazhyna, a Ukrainian therapist in Calgary, says she believes it's a retraumatizing time for those who came to Canada as refugees during previous conflicts in Ukraine.

"I would imagine that all of their fears are coming back. It's beyond describable," says Zavrazhyna.

But she says it isn't just refugees who are struggling — it's the entire Ukrainian community. Zakharova agrees.

"Everyone who I talk to from the Ukrainian community here, everyone is not sleeping and worried and anxious and angry as well," says Zakharova.

Many Ukrainian Calgarians are experiencing the mental health impacts of the war in Ukraine, knowing the lives of their loved ones are at risk. But Zavrazhyna says those who are struggling may not address it anytime soon, as personal distress isn't a priority compared to the survival of family and friends.

WATCH | How Canadians are helping people on the ground in Ukraine:

How Canadians are helping people on the ground in Ukraine

4 months ago
Duration 2:03
From setting up temporary shelters for refugees to deploying emergency field hospitals, Canadians are mobilizing to provide relief efforts on the ground in Ukraine for people affected by the war.

Mental health isn't a current priority, says therapist

Zavrazhyna says the situation in Ukraine is so horrible that even as a therapist, she feels overwhelmed and struggles to give advice.

She says many Ukrainians aren't talking about their mental health during this time, despite feeling the repercussions.

"A lot of our friends are in mortal danger, so it feels inappropriate to even speak about how we feel," says Zavrazhyna. "How can we compare our suffering — where we're anxious, we're nervous, we're depressed, we don't sleep — with someone who can be killed at any moment?"

Hanna Zavrazhyna, a Ukrainian therapist in Calgary, says many Ukrainians are not talking about their current mental health struggles because they're focused on the survival of their friends and family back home. (Submitted by Hanna Zavrazhyna)

After navigating the trauma of fleeing Crimea, Zakharova says it's important to address mental health. Through experience, she knows the consequences of not taking care of yourself.

"It's going to get worse and you're just going to [get] run down and you can get sick for quite a long time."

She says she tries to take care of her mental health in simple ways — by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, drinking water and exercising — though it's no easy feat.

"Sleeping is a problem," she says. "Every evening, I try to go to bed earlier, but it's hard because you're on the news, scrolling and checking the latest."

Zavrazhyna, the therapist, says that's exactly what the community needs to do during this time.

"Listen to [your] body. Sleep if you can. Rest if you can. Play with your children if you can," she said.

Zavrazhyna says there are a number of mental health supports in Calgary for those who are struggling and seeking help — including the Calgary Counselling Centre, the Distress Centre, counselling programs through immigrant-serving agencies such as the Immigrant Education Society and more.

She says she hopes mental health will become a focus for local Ukrainians when their loved ones are in less danger.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced Thursday the federal government is preparing to accept an "unlimited number" of Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country by waiving most typical visa requirements and creating a new visa category for Ukrainians.

"Maybe at that time, we'll start talking more about mental health and looking into how to meet those people's mental health needs when they're physically safe," said Zavrazhyna.

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