The Face of Courage and Leadership

,
Psychiatric Times, Vol 39, Issue 5,

“All of us have already experienced collective trauma... and we are being repeatedly traumatized each and every day."

COMMENTARY

Valeriia Palii, PhD, the president of the National Psychological Association of Ukraine, is hunkered down in Kyiv, a city under attack by Russian invaders. As her home, city, and country are besieged, she is trying to stay alive. Homes are being destroyed, schools and churches are being decimated, people are being killed, and the constant pressure of war is exhausting. She is working tirelessly with other psychologists to help their fellow citizens deal with their inconceivable stress. She is taking the lead in her war-torn and crippled country as trauma reigns over 41 million Ukrainians.

Palii reported that many of her colleagues are now refugees in European countries. “Some have been forced to move to safer places in western Ukraine, some are hiding in their basements in cities being bombed and shelled, and some are surrounded by the enemy,” she said. Palii admitted she is worried about her life and the lives of her family members. She is feeling great pain over what she feels is a loss of control over her life and “watching the despair of others as they lose loved ones.” Despite her acute fears of death, Palii is marching on in her role as lead psychologist in her country.

Palii affirmed that the Ukrainian people are united and determined during this war. “We all see our future as an independent democracy,” she said. “Every citizen is active in forming the resistance to the takeover by Russia.”

As an example, Palii described a Ukrainian woman who “shot down a Russian drone by dropping a jar of pickled tomatoes from her balcony.” Every citizen is doing something to win—defending, accepting the displaced and injured, transporting, cooking for the army, donating to the military. “We are a brave people who will not accept anything short of victory against the enemy,” she says.

According to Palii, this war has opened a Pandora’s box of mental health problems. “All of us have already experienced collective trauma in the first 2 weeks of this massacre, and we are being repeatedly traumatized each and every day,” she explained. “We are already dealing with shock reactions, panic attacks, and acute anxiety.” In the near future, she expects to see “posttraumatic stress disorder, depression from the loss of life and property, and the consequences of brain injuries from close explosions.”

Palii has shown fearless leadership from the very beginning of the war and has developed an action plan. Initial requests for help involved problems such as lack of food and water and houses destroyed by bombs. “We have launched psychological support for Ukrainians and it is focused mainly on crisis assistance,” she stated. “We are actively involved in sharing and communicating self-help protocols to prevent panic and extreme anxiety.”

Children are a special focus as well. “We are focusing on our children by preparing them for forced relocation, supporting those whose parents have been deployed, and even suggesting to children what games to play in a bomb shelter,” Palii said.

Palii is planning for after the war. She knows Ukrainian psychologists will need training in crisis work and trauma therapy. She is already reaching out to experts in other countries to assist in their training. Her plan is to launch a crisis center, primarily online and manned by both volunteers and paid employees. Neurocognitive rehabilitation is being mapped out, as many Ukrainians will suffer brain injuries. Peer support interventions for military personnel will be a top priority as well.

Palii shows us what courage and leadership look like. She is a prime example of what makes the Ukrainian people great, united, and a formidable opponent. She has a deep commitment to her country, a strong desire for democracy, compassion for her fellow citizens, and a fearless desire to lead. Despite the grim and dark horrors of war, this Ukrainian psychologist is paving the way for survival and future mental health among her neighbors and compatriots.

Palii’s extraordinary work is corroborated by Amanda Clinton, PhD, senior director for international affairs at the American Psychological Association, and Adam Suchy, PhD, of the Czech Psychology Network for Global Changes.

We are mental health professionals ourselves. We have much to learn from this brave and skilled psychologist. We hope all mental health professionals in Ukraine—psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors—join forces with psychologists at this time of great crisis. Professionals in the United States should provide as much assistance as possible in the form of manpower, expertise, and funds.

We pray that Palii remains safe and is able to continue her impressive work. Her country and its people need her.

Dr Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specializes in the societal and ethical aspects of psychiatry.