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Handling Anxiety about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The recent news is a chance to deepen our sense of understanding and empathy.

Key points

  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine offers a chance to reflect on the diversity of our communities.
  • This moment in history provides an opportunity to come together around our shared interest in helping people in distress.
  • Learning how to speak respectfully to people with whom you disagree is the single most important skill in addressing the conflict.

Despite the fact that it is as large as Texas and has a population of 41 million people — 30% the population of Russia — Ukraine is a country unfamiliar to many Americans. Nonetheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has hit us hard, as many have realized how many colleagues, friends, clients and neighbors are personally affected by this conflict.

I teach psychoanalytic graduate programs to Russian and Ukrainian students. When the news broke, I knew that it would affect my students and colleagues tremendously; Janine Wanlass, who organizes our program in individual psychotherapy, reported that, on the day after the invasion, her students were openly weeping in class. With this in mind, I did the same thing in my course on couple and family therapy on Friday, as news spread of the advancing of Russian troops into many areas of the country, including Kyiv. Ironically, my originally scheduled lecture was scheduled to be on “Aggression in development and in families and couples”; now we were confronted with aggression on the global scale. None of my Ukrainian students were present; they were personally threatened, fearing for their own safety and that of their families.

Hearing stories, finding community

Ties between my Russian and Ukrainian students are often close. In the wake of the news, class-wide solidarity with Ukraine was spontaneous and near-unanimous; we called a meeting to address the situation and offer a platform for our colleagues and students to be heard.

In one of the most moving meetings I have ever attended, my colleagues, one after another, spoke of their shame and guilt in response to the Russian invasion; many told of their grandparents who were Ukrainian, of being born in Ukraine themselves, or of friends and relatives there. They spoke of their wish to protest, knowing that open protest was certain to be met with arrest, but feeling a need to speak out nevertheless. I was extraordinarily moved by the tears and pain of my Russian colleagues.

One therapist spoke to say that the position of our program had to be unambiguous in its support of Ukrainian independence. She extended her sympathy to our colleagues and to all who had family and friends in Ukraine. The meeting offered a platform for people to feel validated and supported, while seeing the near-universality of their feelings.

However, this meeting also underscored the importance of being able to respectfully disagree. One student spoke in support of the Russian invasion as perhaps necessary when (as she had heard) Russian lives were at risk in Ukraine; while I (and I think the rest of the class) strongly disagree, her voice represents the kind of difference that must be respected if we are to reach a point of understanding. While the threat of war looms large for our foreign colleagues, local moments of discord threaten the cohesion of our own social bonds. As we struggle to understand each other, we must continue to act with compassion.

Last week, the institute I co-founded, the International Psychotherapy Institute, now under the direction of Caroline Sehon, offered two Town Hall forums as a means of giving voice to our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues. There were 120 participants from all over, mainly Russia and Ukraine. As people spoke openly, it underscored their feelings of fear, suffering, but also of determination.

The meeting began with a Ukrainian colleague speaking to her feelings of fear and violation: a sentiment shared by many others in her country. They detailed how Ukrainian relatives had fled to the forest, were sheltering in basements, or trying to get to the border with Poland. One Ukrainian analyst tried to give immediate support through offering groups to students; another told us that the day of the invasion, almost all of his patients came to their appointments, but on the next day, only one showed up. We have to provide immediate support, one analyst said, while wondering when it will be possible to offer psychotherapy and psychoanalysis once again in a country so damaged by this war.

Meanwhile, Russian participants largely spoke to their guilt and shame: feelings unmitigated by the knowledge that they had no direct hand in the invasion — or even their country’s leadership. (It is widely held that the elections that confirmed Putin in office were shams.) Others spoke of the self-destruction Russia was bringing on itself through this invasion; this war will almost certainly create division, dissent and hardship in Russia, too. Several spoke of having left Russia because of the increasingly poisoned climate and a lack of feeling safe there.

One participant spoke of her ambivalence. She said her heart goes out to the Ukrainian colleagues and their families, but she also thinks of the young Russian soldiers heading to war, and the devastation their deaths will wreak on their families and communities. She expressed the wish not to see the young people of the Russian army devastated, while also offering intense sympathy for Ukraine.

Kurt Gunther, an analyst colleague and friend in Vienna, Austria, who has been training Ukrainian therapists in the treatment of trauma for many years, spoke of the need for visibility and support for the field of mental health, as Ukrainian therapists will face enormous mental health crises during and after the war, and they will need financial support. The meeting ended with the Ukrainians expressing gratitude for the sympathy of their Russian colleagues and friends, and a feeling of the importance of doing all we could to stay connected.

My colleague Jeff Taxman from Milwaukee suggested to me that we offer regular seminars to complement the Town Hall meetings. Jeff specializes in interventions during mass trauma; he uses applications of analytic psychotherapy that are different from our other types of work on trauma and PTSD. He hopes to offer practical seminars to Russian and Ukrainian colleagues through partnership with our Russian organizer, to be made widely available as the conflict continues. Then begins the heart of the work: helping people navigate through their feelings of anger, shame, fear and helpless.

What can we do?

Global political struggles can easily threaten collegial friendships and collaboration at all levels. It is crucial, now more than ever, that we maintain our relationships and our support of each other. We may be left feeling helpless because we cannot alter the political or military situation — but interpersonal bonds can, and must, endure in the wake of destructive international events. When I consult on cases presented by my Russian and Ukrainian colleagues, I see how Russia’s history of trauma continues to affect its people; this war threatens to produce enormous trauma in both Russia and Ukraine. We have to be ready to help.

It seems so little, what we can do: standing by and watching while our friends and colleagues suffer the direct blows of war. Most of us did not think it was possible that there would be a war in Europe in our lifetime — but then again, there are so many things these days we did not think possible, both at home and abroad. We have to keep in mind that Putin has threatened us all: anyone who interferes with his plans, threatened to create retaliation “such as no one has seen.” We are not as removed from the conflict as many would like to believe. We are all feeling some version of the same thing.

For the last several years, we have seen how political differences produce division in the United States. I expect there will be a comparable political schism within Russia. As mental health professionals, we have to be prepared to maintain our bridges with those who disagree with us and with whom we disagree. As we teeter on the brink of an expanding international conflict, we have an opportunity to rise beyond our fears, reach out to those in crisis, and come together as an international community of caregivers.


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