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  • Nicholas Mellor

Healing Together: The Impact of Peer Support Groups in War-Torn Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over the lives of its people. The constant threat of violence, displacement, and loss has taken a heavy toll on mental health, leaving many struggling with the invisible wounds of trauma. In the face of this immense suffering, peer-to-peer support groups have emerged as a beacon of hope, offering a vital space for Ukrainians to connect, share their experiences, and find solace in collective healing.

One such initiative is Moe Kolo, a project based in Lviv that provides support groups for Ukrainians coping with the psychological impact of war. Led by a team of mental health experts, Moe Kolo blends the expertise of professionals with the power of shared experience. In the testimonies, names have been changed to fictional ones to ensure confidentiality.

The Strength of Shared Stories

"Our support groups are a place where everyone can be heard and find similar experiences," commented co-founder Charles Harman. "We talk about how to take care of mental health and teach useful practical tools that can be used every day to improve your psycho-emotional state."

For Ukrainians grappling with the trauma of war, the ability to openly share their stories and connect with others who understand their pain is invaluable. In a support group, the isolation and loneliness that often accompany trauma can be replaced by a sense of belonging and shared humanity. Knowing that they are not alone in their struggles can be a powerful source of strength and hope for those healing from the emotional scars of war.

More Than Just Talking

While sharing experiences is a crucial element of Moe Kolo's support groups, the project goes beyond mere conversation. The team of psychologists incorporates evidence-based practices, teaching participants practical tools and techniques for managing stress, anxiety, and other symptoms of trauma. These tools, ranging from relaxation exercises to mindfulness techniques, empower individuals to take control of their mental well-being and build resilience in the face of adversity.

The Power of Collective Action

The support group format fosters a sense of community and mutual support. Participants learn from each other's experiences, share coping strategies, and offer encouragement and understanding. This collective action not only benefits individuals but also strengthens the community as a whole. As Ukrainians work together to heal, they rebuild the social fabric torn apart by war and create a foundation for a stronger, more resilient future.

The Story of Moe Kolo: A Beacon of Hope in Lviv

Moe Kolo's impact is evident in the stories of its participants. Take Olya, a young woman who fled her home in eastern Ukraine after it was bombed. Initially withdrawn and struggling to cope with anxiety, Olya found solace in Moe Kolo's support group. "I was afraid to talk about what I had been through," she says. "But in the group, I felt safe and understood. Hearing other people's stories helped me realize that I wasn't alone."

Through the group, Olya learned practical tools for managing her anxiety and rediscovered a sense of hope for the future. "Moe Kolo helped me find my strength again," she says. "I'm still healing, but I know that I'm not alone, and that gives me the courage to keep going."

Other recent testimonies include:

"I am deeply grateful to the organizers of this project. It helped me break free from a state of complete apathy and endless frustration. In the group, I felt safe, and comfortable, and was able to share my fears and thoughts. Hearing others' experiences expanded my perspective and slowed down the emotional rollercoaster. This invaluable experience happened at the right time in my life, and now I better understand how to move forward and deal with the turmoil within me." (Kateryna, participant of the support group for Ukrainian forced migrants)

"I am very thankful to everyone involved in this project. Thanks to those who initiated it and made it work. It helped me calm down, emerge from a constant state of apathy and depression, and start doing something. It's not a panacea, but this project is a wonderful pill that brought clarity of mind and positive emotions back to me." (Halyna, participant of the group supporting families of active military personnel)

"I am delighted that I joined this group right now when my loss is still so fresh. It allowed me to better understand myself, and my needs, and on a deeper level, start accepting what happened. To realize that I am not alone. Thanks to the organizers and facilitators for these months of support and assistance." (Inna, participant of the support group for families of fallen)

A Model for the Future?

Moe Kolo's success underscores the vital role that support groups can play in helping communities heal from the trauma of war. As Ukraine rebuilds its physical infrastructure, the importance of rebuilding its social and emotional infrastructure cannot be overstated. These support groups offer a powerful tool for this rebuilding process, providing a safe space for sharing, learning, and healing, and fostering a sense of community and resilience that will be essential for Ukraine's long-term recovery.

The support groups are conducted exclusively in an online format, allowing coverage of all regions of Ukraine where Ukrainians have electricity and internet, as well as various corners of the world where Ukrainians have involuntarily migrated. Therefore, the psychological support format easily scales and is not dependent on the geography of service users.

The current focus has been on those groups that have been perceived as being the most vulnerable and including families of active military personnel, relatives of fallen Ukrainians, volunteers, refugees, parents of children with physical or mental disabilities.

The need for such support extends beyond Ukraine's borders. As conflicts rage in other parts of the world, the lessons learned from Moe Kolo can be applied to support communities around the globe struggling with the aftermath of war and violence. By sharing their stories and supporting each other, individuals can weave a vital thread of hope and healing, one that transcends borders and brings communities together in the face of unimaginable hardship.

In conclusion

Peer-to-peer support groups like Moe Kolo are more than just a source of comfort and connection; they are a lifeline for individuals and communities grappling with the trauma of war. By providing a safe space for sharing, learning, and healing, these groups play a critical role in rebuilding lives and communities shattered by conflict.

Challenges remain, but as the model is evolving as and when bottlenecks are identified:

• How to recruit, support and provide further training for the professionals needed to guide the support groups?

• How to raise sufficient funds to manage, scale and continuously improve the service?

• How to reach groups in the country that have particularly suffered be they veterans, pastors or children and their teachers, raising awareness of the service and ensuring sufficient capacity as well as collaborating with other mental health schemes?

• How to scale and improve the accessibility of such groups, especially in the East?

• How to monitor the impact of these groups so that the approach can be developed to improve the effectiveness and engagement of those seeking support, building on innovative ideas such as those coming out of Boulder Crest and ‘learning to struggle well’?

• What lessons can be shared with groups using similar approaches inside Ukraine, as well as around the world?

We hope to bring you further updates on how the evidence of the impact of different groups on reducing anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms building on the pre-and post-screenings of participants' psycho-emotional states and regular assessment of subjective feedback.

As Ukraine charts its path toward recovery, and as other communities around the world face similar challenges, the Moe Kolo model offers a powerful reminder of the transformative power of human connection and shared experience in the face of adversity.


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