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Hundreds of Ukrainians getting help from Israeli ‘psychological first aid’ hotline

Specially established service helping those still in conflict zone and refugees, capitalizes on providing help via large number of Russian-speakers in Israeli mental health sector

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: Ukrainian refugees arrive at the crossing border in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on Friday, March 11, 2022. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 2.3 million have fled the country since Russian troops crossed into Ukraine on Feb. 24. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Illustrative image: Ukrainian refugees arrive at the crossing border in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on Friday, March 11, 2022. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 2.3 million have fled the country since Russian troops crossed into Ukraine on Feb. 24. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Israeli mental health professionals are providing psychological phone support to Ukrainians, via a special hotline, and have already helped hundreds of people still in the warzone as well as refugees.

The initiative capitalizes on the large number of Russian-speakers in Israel’s healthcare community, and has quickly recruited more than 200 psychologists, social workers and others who can take calls.

Immigrants to Israel from the two countries in the conflict, Russia and Ukraine, are working together to support those in distress. Some speak Ukrainian as well as Russian.

The initiative, which doesn’t have a name, started small, soon after the war began, with Kyiv-born Jenia Pukshansky, social worker and psychotherapist, using a WhatsApp group of Russian-speaking mental health professionals to recruit volunteers. They initially gave out their direct numbers to those in distress.

Now, Ukrainians make contact with the ad hoc organization, and are allotted a professional who speaks with them.

“People who volunteers talk to are in incredibly difficult situations, with some now refugees and others talking from areas where there is fighting,” psychotherapist Dr. Zina Levitan from Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, who is helping to supervise the hotline, told The Times of Israel.

“Those close to fighting are trying hard to deal with fears and stress, worry for their loved ones, and losing those close to them,” she said.

Dr. Zina Levitan (L) and Liat Ariel (R) of Rambam Medical Center, two members of the team operating an Israel-based mental health support line for Ukrainians (Rambam Medical Center)

The group, which includes trauma professionals, also provides support to Ukrainian colleagues working in Ukraine and with refugees in Europe.

Dr. Liat Ariel, director of the psychological service at Rambam, who is helping to run the hotline said that the service has quickly grown.

“The initiative began immediately after the war in Ukraine started, and quickly gained momentum. More and more people joined and at the same time more people contacted the line and asked for help.

“We hear awful things from callers. They are in distress, sometimes extreme, and need help to continue to function and survive physically and mentally, to take care of themselves, their children and their parents. These are people who have lost confidence and stability,” Ariel said.

Levitan said that the needs of callers are great, and many will need ongoing mental health support, but the hotline is successfully helping with immediate needs by providing “psychological first aid of sorts.”

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