Trauma and Resilience in Disaster’s Wake: A Scientific Perspective

Image above: The wreckage of a collapsed building, Diyarbakır, Turkey, 2023. VOA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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With a long history of traumatic events, Ukraine was already rife with psychological distress when Russia invaded it in February 2022. The World Bank in 2019 reported the country’s suicide rate as double that of the European Union. A sizeable number of Ukrainians displaced by internal fighting and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety (Shevlin et al., 2018; Roberts et al. 2019). 

The war with Russia has dramatically deepened that anguish, and social psychologist Robin Goodwin (University of Warwick) is among the scientists examining the conflict’s impact on Ukrainians’ mental health.  

Goodwin shared the findings on Ukrainians’ resilience in a presentation for “Aftermath of a Disaster: Psychological Well-being After Traumatic Events,” part of APS’ Science for Society webinar series. Six weeks after Russia’s invasion, Goodwin and colleagues examined survey data from a representative sample of 2,000 Ukrainians. Using data collected by colleagues in Israel, the researchers examined individuals’ perceptions of their own trauma and resilience. They controlled for demographic factors.  

A recording of the webinar is available below for registrants and APS members. 

The full webinar is available to APS members and registered workshop attendees.

The researchers linked high levels of resilience to factors such as trust in others, youth, being a Ukranian speaker, and a perceived ability to bounce back after hardship (Goodwin et al., 2023). Further analysis showed PTSD symptoms to be highest among Ukrainians who were displaced, either within or outside of the country. Goodwin and colleagues also found PTSD to be prevalent among people with disabilities, particularly those with impaired social functioning (Ben-Ezra et al., 2022; Kang et al., 2023). 

In another study not yet published, Goodwin teamed with other scientists to examine data collected from 10,000 displaced Ukrainians and found the vast majority scored high on anxiety measures.  

Goodwin and other speakers in the webinar described evidence-based steps that mental health professionals and communities can take to help people traumatized by natural and human-made disasters.  

Public health expert Nikunj Makwana (Jawaharlal Nehru University) described a holistic ‘preventive medicine’ approach to disaster relief that includes preparing for immediate response to victims’ mental health needs and sustained measures to help them recover. He cited research showing cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as an effective early intervention against PTSD and other psychological problems (Litz & Maguen 2007; Roberts et al., 2009). 

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Yanki Yazgan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Turkey, described research involving victims of massive earthquakes that beset regions of that country in 1999 and 2023. After the most recent earthquake, findings from the 1999 disaster helped researchers identify critical factors that affect mental health (e.g., hunger, lack of sleep) and quickly create interventions that prioritized victims’ access to shelter, food, and other basic needs, Yazgan said. 

In a longitudinal study after the 1999 quake, Yazgan and his colleagues trained teachers in psychoeducational and CBT techniques to help school children affected by the disaster. Over 3 years, children who received the intervention showed fewer symptoms of trauma, grief, and dissociation, as well as better academic performance and behavior, than those in a control group. (Wolmer et al., 2003, 2005).  

In the wake of the 2023 earthquake, many schools remained closed for extended periods. So Yazgan and his colleagues provided teachers, parents, and mental health care professionals with a digital form of the intervention. 

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