Traumatized Ukrainian refugees who have sought refuge in the UK may have to wait two years before they can receive specialist therapy to help them heal from the horrors of war, experts say.
War trauma therapists say they have seen two-year NHS waiting lists before refugees can access the specialist treatment they need.
Services across the UK are patchy with some areas ‘trauma treatment deserted’, according to Emily Palmer-White, psychotherapist and community leader at the charity Room to Heal, which provides support for people who have fled persecution.
“Waiting lists are often extremely long. I was told two years. You can’t separate the psychological from the practical — it’s harder to help people if they’re preoccupied with survival,” Palmer-White said.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Social Care said officials recognized the trauma Ukrainians were facing and stood shoulder to shoulder with them. However, beyond access to NHS care, officials did not cite any specific arrangements to provide newly arrived refugees with trauma support.
Professor Cornelius Catona, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said visa delays of several weeks would likely exacerbate the mental illness of those already struggling and that refugee programs should have included a mechanism to detect signs of trauma early .
Viktoriia Liamets, a Ukrainian child and family therapist who recently arrived in the UK after fleeing war, said Ukrainians arriving in Britain had multiple and complex traumas to deal with.
“People are in shock to leave the place they call home,” Liamets said. “Some have left elderly parents and other family members behind with only a small backpack because they thought they would be back soon. There are so many layers of trauma that it takes time to treat them. People need to be in a safe environment before they can start doing this. But being in a new country with a new language and no income can make them vulnerable. Your whole internal construct becomes unstable.
She said children can be particularly affected by flight from war to the point where it can even change their personality.
Kirsty McNeill, executive director of Save the Children UK, said there was a worrying lack of mental health support for “incredibly traumatised” children arriving from Ukraine.
She said: “By definition, these children are traumatised. The speed at which their lives fell apart is something that requires specialist support to adjust to. There are children who went to school normally on Mondays and on weekends they were sitting on the floor of a Romanian gymnasium. Their lives were completely turned upside down within a week. We don’t see any real urgency from the UK government to step up specialist mental health support, nor do we see very many new social workers recruited.
Professor William Yule, Emeritus Professor of Applied Child Psychology at King’s College London and an expert on child stress and trauma and the needs of refugees, said: “The situation in Ukraine is incredibly complicated. One of the important things to remember is that the war started in 2014. People might be both bereaved and traumatized if they saw loved ones being killed.
He said children should be allowed to talk and be listened to if they wanted to talk about war and added that a great deal of expertise had been gained in dealing with the issue of traumatic stress from work in this area. after the war in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago.