With the Russian-Ukrainian war waging on, the effects of conflict leave their mark on a new battlefield. There are physical risks for those that come with living in war zones, such as breathing in smoke and ash from fires and blasts that can affect the nose and lungs. But there are also mental health risks. This is not unique to this recent bloodshed. For as long as war has been fought, the effects of battle have quietly eroded mental health of those in the crossfire.
While the Russian-Ukrainian war is fresh in our minds, we will explore various conflicts around the world throughout modern history. These conflicts and how they have affected citizens and veterans mental health have been backed up by research, which we want to respect.
Read on to learn about the impact of war on mental health.
Those living in war-affected areas often face adversities such as forced family separation, loss of access to school and healthcare, insecure access to food and shelter, and displacement from homes and communities. Even worse, children are kidnapped and forced to participate in armed conflict.
In 2017, the advocacy group Child Soldiers International estimated that more than 100,000 children were forced to become soldiers in state and non-state military organizations in at least 18 armed conflicts worldwide. The UN has identified 14 countries where children have been widely used as soldiers. These countries are Afghanistan, Colombia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Children involved with armed groups are at heightened risk for mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Stripping a child of their innocence at a young age is an irreversible act. Former child soldiers often face stigma and lack family and community acceptance upon returning home.
Alongside children, women are also at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues stemming from conflict. One study found that one in five women out of 1,463 in the trial had been exposed to a traumatic event by witnessing an armed attack. These women were found to be more likely to develop depressive and PTSD symptoms.
Women also face greater difficulty in accessing mental health services in Afghanistan. Often this is the result of cultural factors, where women are highly unlikely to accept treatment from male doctors. This creates particular problems in rural areas, where a lack of freedom of movement prevents women from traveling to districts where female practitioners are available. Furthermore, the country’s patriarchal society often requires women to seek permission from a male family member to access health services.
Killing in war often triggers a moral conflict in veterans that can damage their self-image, relationships and spirituality. The guilt, shame, anger and isolation they suffer compound psychological trauma related to their war experiences.
Although not all veterans who have taken a life suffer guilt or mental health consequences. The growing number of veterans seeking mental health services suggest that high numbers of veterans are experiencing moral injury.
One veteran expressed this internal struggle: “All I knew is I hurt inside and I didn’t know why, you know? I didn’t know why I would feel so bad if I didn’t do anything wrong. I was not a baby killer. I was not—I did my job. I did what everybody else did. But always that nagging question, why do I hurt like this?”
Thousands of miles away people spend their days checking news sites and social media for the latest updates in Ukraine. The majority of those glued to their screen are on the edge of their seats waiting if the conflict will escalate further, and worse, turn nuclear. As of Mar. 7, TikTok videos tagged with #ukrainewar have been viewed more than 600 million times, and almost 180,000 Instagram posts have used that hashtag.
Nowadays, it seems as if the world has become desensitized to “once-in-a-lifetime” historical phenomena. However, news headlines, meant to grab your attention, can do more to incite fear than offer information. The continuous flow of information can be overwhelming. The endless scrolling through stories and infographics while being inundated with virtual noise can create a negative atmosphere of panic and doom. If you’re not sure how to tell if you’re inundated with the news, take stock of the impact it’s having on you.