Ukraine Care Project: An International Effort to Aid Trauma Survivors in Kyiv: Group protocols in Action

By: Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D., Darlyne G. Nemeth, Ph.D., M.P., CGP, Oleksandr Zharkov, Ph.D., Julia Maney, M.A., June Chang, B.A., Caroline Burke, B.A., Carl Tauberman, B.S., Cody Capps, B.S.

War can cause psychosocial turmoil for the soldiers and civilians involved. In the ongoing war by Russia against Ukraine, many Ukrainian military personnel and non-combatants have been harmed physically and emotionally. With limited human capacity and financial resources, Ukraine cannot meet the psychotherapeutic needs of its citizens. Thus, Ukrainian professionals have collaborated with their American counterparts, alongside international humanitarian organizations, in a unique partnership to provide interventions for psychological support, stress reduction and resilience.

Considerable effort was extended by the U.S. team to find appropriate partners on the ground. During this process, contacts were made with innumerable Ukrainian organizations and importantly, a relationship was forged with the Polish Consulate General, at the Embassy of Poland to the United States, as well as the Ukrainian Consulate General. The partnership that emerged has been with the Community Center for Psychological Support in Ukraine and Kyiv City Center for Social, Professional and Labor Rehabilitation of the Disabled, and with other partners in the United States, namely, Columbia University Teachers College (TC) and the Neuropsychology Center of Louisiana.

The Kyiv Center provides support for individuals with various conditions who are affected, vulnerable and at-risk, such as parents and children, elderly people, migrants and refugees, military personnel, victims of violence, persons with disabilities (either chronic or caused by the current war), persons suffering from the war or who have lost loved ones, survived captivity, torture or occupation, or have any physical or mental condition that could benefit from professional assistance in accordance with their rehabilitation programs.

Columbia University Professor and UN representative, Judy Kuriansky, has led the U.S. team with Dr. Darlyne Nemeth, Division 49 fellow, neuropsychologist and founder of the Neuropsychology Center of Louisiana (NCLA). Efforts have been supported by four of Teachers College graduate students: Julia Maney and Caroline Burke, who are on the logistics and research team, and June Chang and Carl Tauberman, who have led exercises (respectively, in tai chai and meditation). Cody Capps, a NCLA staff member, has also helped to create a visualization exercise for the workshops. The Ukrainian team consists of local psychologists on staff at the Kyiv Center, led by Oleksandr Zharkov, and include Dmytro Tytula and Iryna Zhevelyova. The Kyiv Center was founded by international humanitarian Rajiv Fernando, M.D., and is supported by his charitable organizations Chiraj and Heal Corps.

The partners have conducted three workshops for the Kyiv Center, with the U.S. contributions translated by the Ukraine team. The first workshop, held on April 14, 2023, was open to patients at the Center, as well as their family and friends, and included didactic and experiential group elements and techniques to reduce stress and fears caused by the current situation. Dr. Fernando and the Director of the Center, Oksana Verbovska, made introductory remarks. Participants (N=53), ranged from 28 to 61 years old. Survey results indicated that participants noted improvements in their life and work, positive attitudes, and an increased ability to focus and think logically.

Overall, 92% of participants experienced the techniques as helpful in easing fears and anxiety, and 86% reported that they would like to participate in similar future training sessions/lectures.

A second training was held on June 9, 2023, targeted 15 female cancer patients who were not only suffering from the impact of the war but also from cancer. Similar to the first intervention, resilience techniques were presented, to target their specific conditions. Pre-post assessment scores revealed positive changes, and respondents reported high usefulness of the activities (up to 9 out of 10 on a progressive scale). The women found art therapy techniques, including drawing mandalas (the expertise of Dmytro Tytula) valuable for calmness and inner strength, and Dr. Judy Kuriansky’s “Draw-A-Bridge” activity to be an effective intervention to promote healing.

The third workshop was held on August 23, 2023, the day before Ukraine Independence Day, was specifically designed for veterans and their families. Using the train-the-trainers model, the American team trained the Ukrainian team in three specific techniques, promoting resilience that Dr. Kuriansky has used around the world, a guided imagery designed by Dr. Nemeth and Mr. Capps, and a meditation mindfulness technique designed by Carl Tauberman, a veteran, used by the military. All the techniques were deemed to be culturally appropriate. Data analyses indicated improvements on perceived well-being, energy, and sadness, with variable results related to resilience and pain. Participants indicated that the overall experience and activities were useful.

Although the events served different populations, all were suffering from the impact of the war, thus, the preliminary assessments suggest the value of such an intervention as well as the international cooperation of experts to deliver care in the ongoing stress of the wartime conditions for individuals attending the Kyiv center where psychosocial support is offered. More data analysis is being carried out and the nature of the interventions refined as the project continues. Such experiences are suggested to be effective in addressing the psychosocial needs of at-risk individuals in high-stress, low-resource environments facing the complex trauma of ongoing war.

The workshops were accredited by the World Council for Psychotherapy (WCP), for which Dr. Nemeth is Co-Secretary-General.

“‘We in America are honored to work with the brilliant Ukrainian team of the Kyiv Center and Chiraj, to show our solidarity and commitment to the people and soldiers of Ukraine, and to share our techniques that have been useful around the world in trauma and war zones,” says internationally known psychologist Judy Kuriansky, a Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University Teachers College and United Nations representative for IAAP and WCP. The daughter of an Army Colonel whose grandparents emigrated from Odessa to the United States, Kuriansky has a deep connection to the country and vets of Ukraine. She has conducted psychosocial support trainings and workshops all over the world during and after disasters. “My activities of the ‘resilience ball’ ‘finger lock’ ‘contact comfort’ and ‘draw-a-bridge’ have all helped participants focus on post-traumatic growth instead of the typical focus on PTSD.”

By the end of the year, 43,000 clients of the Kyiv City Center for Social, Professional and Labor Rehabilitation of the Disabled will be able to view the videos of these interventions.

Workshop participants with their mandala paintings

The Ukrainian team presenters (left to right):  Kyiv Center, Director Oleksandr Zharkov, Dr. Rajeev Fernando, Kyiv Center psychologists’ Irina Zhevelyova, and  Dmytro Tytula

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