Whether you’re feeling helpless and horrified as you see the images of the suffering in Ukraine, or are worried about the next steps for the military and your service member — or both — there are some things you can do for your mental health, and some things you can control.
“As the situation in Ukraine unfolds we know that you may be feeling scared or uncertain about the status of your service members, your family, and the implications for our country,” states the nonprofit organization Blue Star Families on their website, which also offers information about mental health resources and other support.
This uncertainty and unease is “an example of what our lives are like as military families. You never know what’s coming,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and founder of Blue Star Families, during a recent event.
Trina Clayeux, chief executive officer of Give an Hour, said there are some practical tips for those in the military community for dealing with the stress around these situations. Give an Hour is a nonprofit organization that connects military members and their loved ones to no-cost mental health care through their network of licensed, vetted mental health professionals. Give an Hour has seen an increase of about 14% in requests from the military community at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Clayeux said.
“We advise it’s okay not to feel okay,” said Clayeux.
She suggests taking a moment to consider your thoughts and emotions and “having a non-judgmental review of how you’re doing.” She reminds people of the recent distressing evacuation from Afghanistan, and says the organization is still seeing the mental health after-effects of that. And that’s on top of two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and its mental health effects.
- Pay attention to your physical health, including your eating habits, staying hydrated, getting exercise, and getting enough rest. “If those routine things get out of whack, it can really affect your ability to process the pressures that are going on,” she said.
- As much as possible, step back some from the news and social media. “It’s that delicate balance of being informed, yet putting the boundaries around the mental health of all this,” Clayeux said. The distressing images of the suffering in Ukraine can be overwhelming. It’s important to take notice of what effect this is having on you.
- Set healthy boundaries in discussions with your friends and families. “Say things like, ‘I prefer not to talk about the war in Ukraine. Can we talk about something else?’ " Clayeux said.
- Be careful about not sharing or re-sharing images. “You have boundaries of your own, and want others to prioritize theirs as well,” she said.
- Find a good routine and good habits that work for you, things that you enjoy that aren’t related to any of the current events. “The benefits of walking and just getting outside are so underrated,” she said.
- Tap into your military and veteran social support systems. For military spouses far away from family, positive and productive spouse networks can be a lifeline.
- Look out for others, too. “If you go past the veneer of the niceties and you ask people how they’re really doing, you’re going to find out a lot of people aren’t doing that well,” said Clayeux. If someone is being more withdrawn, for example, let them know you’ve noticed. It’s about being empathetic without taking on other people’s emotions, she said.
There’s extra help if you need it
Don’t wait to reach out for professional help. Clayeux advises not to wait until you’re a “7″ on a scale of 1 to 10. Seeking help earlier, when you’re at a “2 or 3,” is better, she said, because you’re so much more receptive to the help.
You can get help through the military, with free, confidential nonmedical counseling through MilitaryOneSource.mil, or seek help through your military treatment facility or Tricare civilian provider. There are options through the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans to explore, at mentalhealth.va.gov.
Give an Hour is another free-of-charge option for those in the military and veteran communities, as a complement to those military resources. Give an Hour doesn’t put a limit on the amount of time providers give to those in the military community; that’s between the military community and the provider. On average, they see the provider at least six times, Clayeux said.
Therapists who volunteer their services are licensed mental health therapists, and are vetted by Give an Hour. The nonprofit also provides training by experts, free of charge for the providers. They also focus on peer support, which helps those in the military community focus not just on their own healing, but the healing of others, Clayeux said.
The military community has a generous spirit, and military families around the world are searching for ways they can help. Some spouses in Europe have been collecting needed items for refugees. Some military families in Europe have begun taking refugees into their homes temporarily.
For those who are farther away from these opportunities, there are ways to channel that generosity.
You might be able to donate money to an organization that has the structure in place to get help to the Ukrainian people. But there are other ways to make a difference. “You may not be able to do something for the people of Ukraine, but you can do something locally for someone who is suffering in your community,” said Clayeux.
“Looking into the face of someone you’re helping, or working alongside someone with a similar passion, can bring you a lot of joy,” she said.
“Reaching out, being with other people, being around others, being a part of something and having a purpose is really where our mental health is in the best condition.”
Are you a military family member involved in helping Ukrainian refugees in or near your community? Tell us about your efforts. Email reporter Karen Jowers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.