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Written by  Darren D. Moore, Ph.D.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, headlines focused on how Russia’s invasion could impact its relations with nations around the world. Nearly six months into the war, headlines are starting to explore a different kind of impact. Now, we are starting to see the media focusing on the psychological impact that the war is having on those directly and indirectly affected by the conflict.

The primary trauma felt by some Americans

Primary trauma is the term used to describe the emotional response of those who have directly experienced a traumatic event. In the case of the war in Ukraine, the threat is great for serious injury or death, leading to feelings of horror, hopelessness, or helplessness for many. 

Individuals in the US who have relationships with friends, family members, colleagues, or others with a direct tie to Russia or Ukraine have a higher likelihood of experiencing primary trauma due to the conflict. Primary trauma can manifest as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety, among other debilitating conditions. 

Working with military populations has been a major area of focus in my clinical work. This has included working with service members, their spouses, children, and extended family members. In these cases, you must assist individuals who are afraid of being deployed, families dealing with the loss related to active deployment, and people trying to recover from the psychological impact of deployment.

I have also worked with individuals who have gone through multiple deployments, leading to prolonged trauma exposure. Those who have experienced prolonged exposure to primary trauma have difficulty overcoming its effects. Often, that type of trauma leads to issues with addiction, anger management, communication, emotional attachment, and intimacy.

Recent reports reveal that the US is increasing its military presence in Europe as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. That increase has the potential to result in increased trauma among US military families.

The secondary trauma felt by some Americans

While the number of those who face the threat of primary trauma due to the war in Ukraine may be small, those in danger of secondary trauma is much greater. This form of trauma is experienced by those who have access to stories about the war, whether via news coverage or social media posts. Exposure to stories about individuals subjected to violence, the separation of children and parents, and citizens forced to flee their homes can cause secondary trauma, which manifests as extreme sadness, guilt, depression, and anxiety.

Events related to the war in Ukraine can be especially difficult to navigate coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. The prolonged impact of Covid on US culture caused an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, isolation, death, grief, and loss. In essence, it left many individuals, couples, and families stretched thin and ill-prepared to deal with the emotional impact of the war in Ukraine. 

The attempts by the US to intervene in Ukraine at the federal level do not necessarily address the desire felt by many to help those in need. Such individuals can feel hopeless, wanting to do something but realizing there is not much they can do. This can add to the feelings of secondary trauma.

In addition, war is an issue that can inspire polarizing viewpoints in couples and families, leading members to argue and debate about their individual beliefs. Sharing differences in perspectives can lead to healthy dialogue. Still, it can also trigger severe conflict that has a negative impact on couples and families who may already be experiencing high levels of stress.

Other factors exacerbating trauma

To make matters worse, Americans have been dealing with a significant rise in the cost of food, fuel, and other expenses, which some believe to be connected to or compounded by the war. This has resulted in fear and anxiety about the potential of a recession in a time when the average American family is living paycheck to paycheck because of the effects of the pandemic.

A recession, whether actual or perceived, could spark a change in spending habits and an obsession over finances, ultimately leading to additional stress, anxiety, and depression for those with limited financial resources. When finances are impacted, it often causes a ripple effect on the quality of healthcare that is available to people. In some cases, it can prevent individuals from having access to healthcare — including mental health services — when they are desperately needed, as they may struggle to pay for treatment.

In my experience, financial stress is one of the most common issues couples and families face. Depending on the severity, it can contribute to conflict in relationships and experience anxiety, depression, and — in severe cases — suicidal ideation.

For many Americans, the war in Ukraine adds another stressor to a challenging time. As a result, it is important to stay alert for the dangerous manifestations of trauma. Working with a highly-trained and licensed mental health professional can assist in addressing issues related to trauma, depression, and anxiety during these trying times.

Darren D. Moore, Ph.D., is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of I AM MOORE, LLC, a counseling and consulting practice in Georgia providing individual, couple, and family therapy services across multiple states. Dr. Moore is also Core Faculty and Associate Director for Clinical Training and Supervision in the master’s program in Marriage and Family Therapy at the Family Institute, Northwestern University. Some of Dr. Moore’s areas of expertise include Workplace and Mental Health, Men’s Health and Mental Health, Couple and Family Relationships, and Mental Health, Fatherhood, and Fatherlessness.

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