News reports roll in around the clock from the war in Ukraine. Throughout Europe people react to harrowing events and tragic human-interest stories with anything from hopelessness and fear to an intense desire to help. Our collective mental health is being put through the wringer again after two years of lockdowns and social distancing.
At the Norwegian Council for Mental Health we are seeing a huge surge in cases of fear, stress and anxiety. The numbers of calls from both adults and children are increasing. Unicef’s survey of children and young people in Norway showed that 65% are concerned that war will spread to Norway. As a country we empathise with the Ukrainian people; at the same time we fear for our own safety.
Norwegians are trying to get back to normal after two years of lockdowns, but we are facing hard times; we are having to adjust to a new reality of poverty, trauma and possible recession. Our country’s health service and drop-in centres have to meet increased demand just as they are trying to deal with the fallout of the Covid crisis. Norwegian figures show that ten percent of the population have developed mental health issues as a consequence of the pandemic. If we are to help them we must also identify how the war affects every one of us.
A spectrum of reactions
Our reaction to the news is conditioned by our lived experience, but also the experiences of generations before us; by how old we are; how near the war appears to be; and by how those around us respond. Some people have family or friends in the affected areas, or have experience of stress or of war that can be re-triggered. At a time like this we need to meet people’s reactions with kindness and understanding — you never know what the underlying cause may be.
How to help
Caring for and showing solidarity with people affected by war is an expression of social engagement. It helps to see people around us stepping up. Mental health tends to be negatively affected when we experience a lack of safety or stability, and can’t change the situation. But we can actively involve ourselves in voluntary work and can channel our empathy towards a constructive goal by helping and supporting people affected by war — this makes a big difference to everyone involved. There’s a lot of good mental health in just being useful.
There has never been a greater need for help. As we move forward we can use our capacity to care and to engage with other people by including them; we can be active in extending a proper welcome to refugees. We must prevent a situation where the needs of individuals and groups of people are set against each other, along with the xenophobia and dissatisfaction this can breed. To promote proper, necessary inclusivity refugees must receive the services they have a right to, and at the same time the services must protect the needs of other new and also established vulnerable groups. This means increasing resources for preschools, schools, cultural and sporting activities, and the health service. An investment in mental health will benefit not only individuals but all of Norwegian society.
It’s normal and natural to be afraid of war, but to avoid damaging stress and anxiety we have to use the means at our disposal to take care of our mental health.
How to reduce your fear of war
Reduce your exposure to the media. You don’t need to be constantly updated. Twice a day is enough.
Set aside time for your worries. The rest of the time do something other than worry.
Distract yourself by doing things you enjoy.
Spend time with other people, and talk about subjects other than war.
Keep to your daily routine.
Find information about the things that worry you. Listen to experts.
Try to direct the flow of your thoughts - it’s entirely possible.