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Ukraine war sees mental health surge in Russia

families in Ukraine walking from a bombed building
families in Ukraine walking from a bombed building Image credit: whyy.org

The invasion of Ukraine has affected people from all around the globe, including Russians who, like most of us, are still trying to understand what is happening and the consequences war is having on their mental health.

An article published in The Moscow Times spoke to locals caught up in the conflict, struggling to come to terms that their country is at war.

In 2016 animal-behaviourist Sasha spiralled into a state of depression, her wellbeing crumbled into pieces for the following two years.

Finding solace writing an online blog her health eventually improved, but the war on Ukraine has seen her mind-set deteriorate for a second time.

“In total, I’ve relapsed. I’ve returned to depression, had suicidal thoughts,” the 26-year-old told the publication.

Sasha is one of many who have turned to over-the-counter medication to help with their anxiety, the number of antidepressants has quadrupled since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Aliya Miftakova, 25, is a marketing specialist, diagnosed with bipolar disorder the marketing specialist is finding the war is having a devastating effect on her mental health.

“Since the beginning of the war, my life has completely changed,” she said.

“I start every day by watching the news, just scrolling through the feeds of various publications and feeling completely helpless and frustrated.”

It’s difficult to gauge how many people in Russia are being affected by the war, the country rarely produce statistics monitoring mental health. But an American analytical firm, Gallup, has noticed words such as “against,” “ashamed” and “scary” replacing positive comments posted on Russian social media platforms.

A psychiatrist who runs a private clinic in Moscow has seen around 500 people using his services since war broke out.

“What I do every day, basically 24/7 for the last three weeks, is to try and contain my patients’ emotional responses and to provide them with tools to cope with everyday life better,” they told The Moscow Times.

“One of my clients' mothers lives in Mariupol and received a brain injury due to bombardment. Another was displaced from Donetsk and suffers from OCD. Many, as a result of impulsive decisions, left Russia for the nearest possible country, any country, and now have no clue what to do next.

“My job is to contain all this chaos, and to remind people that they are human beings with human needs.”

The war has led to people suffering from mental health storing up on medication in fear of supplies running out.

The rise in panic-buying has seen many without their vital antidepressants and pharmacy’s taking advantage of the situation by rising prices to an eye-watering amount.

“I have always been taking medications for the past few years for my bipolar, but due to sanctions, the drugs that I need to take have stopped being imported into Russia. They first became more expensive by 30-40%, now they have completely disappeared,” Miftakhova said. 

Sasha struggled to find a pharmacy storing Trazodone, a reasonably priced antidepressant known for having few side effects.

“My husband and I travelled all over Moscow to find some. Eventually my husband found the last five packs somewhere, and bought them all. It's like gold digging now,” Sasha said.

Despite Russian distributors claiming manufactures across Europe will continue to supply essential medication The Moscow Times has heard mixed messages.

“Sanctions do not affect the pharmaceutical industry. There are some logistical issues now, due to chaos and delays in medical supplies,” Sergei Shulyak, the general director of Russian pharmaceutical analysis firm DSM Group, assured the publication.

But the Moscow psychotherapist painted a different, bleaker picture.

“You just cannot find the missing link, because the company says that everything is ok, the distributor says all is ok, but there is just no Prozac, no Strattera, you just physically cannot buy it anywhere,” he said. 

In a televised interview with President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko told Russia there were enough medication and urged people to stop panic-buying.

“I want to tell the public: you don’t need to stock up,” Murashkin said.

But just like Putin’s promises he was not intending to invade Ukraine in early February, Murashkin’s statement doesn’t ring true.

“I had to switch several clients from foreign medication to something else, and it's a sad thing, because they were doing really well,” the psychotherapist said.

Russia may produce a number of antidepressants, but professionals say they are not as affected as those manufactured in western countries.

“The consensus among many doctors is that drugs produced in Russia to treat mental disorders are of poor quality, much worse than foreign drugs. This is largely due to inexperienced practices and manufacturers,” psychiatrist Victor Lebedev told The Moscow Times. 

Statistics from the World Health Organization suggest around 5% of Russians are suffering from depression, but Vladislav Plotnikov, an associate professor at St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics, believes the real figure is expected to be between 10% and 20%.

With Russia blocking western social media platforms not only has the country been fed diluted news, the lack of resource has also seen the collapse of small businesses.

“I lost my job as nobody in Russia is interested in animal welfare now, and I have practically also lost my Instagram blog, which helped me find clients,” Sasha said. 

It’s predicted a number of young people will develop severe mental health conditions as a result of the war, but as Lebedev stresses we won’t know the true impact the war has had on people’s wellbeing for quite some time.

“It's likely that we will see the true effects of all this on people’s mental health in a year or a two,” the psychiatrist said.

Latest figures show an estimated 20,000 Ukrainians have been killed and 10 million displaced since the war started.