As conflict in Ukraine continues to affect the mental health of Ukrainian students around the world, many at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) in Toronto and City University in London have found support within their schools’ communities.
Ukrainian students have been struggling to balance studies with their ongoing feelings towards the war, as exams take place and the war continues.
“I’m very stressed, it’s very overwhelming, and I find I’m having trouble with focusing,” said Yuliya Kovalenko, a Ukrainian student studying international finance and economics at TMU.
Kovalenko, who moved to Canada from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, when she was 10, says that she’s been unable to get work done because her mind keeps “spiralling” when she thinks about her family.
“All of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins live there,” she said. “It’s just an overall worry. I don’t sleep well anymore and I don’t eat well.”
This is a regular occurrence among Ukrainian students, says Saif Mohsini, a post-graduate psychologist from London.
“Feelings of distance, confusion and helplessness are probably common,” said Mohsini, who majored in the psychological effects of war. “In some extreme cases, these emotions of helplessness — or even guilt — for not being with their families can provoke episodes of panic attacks and recurring nightmares.”
Mohsini said social media can also affect students’ mental health because consuming “endless amounts” of negative information promotes anxiety and depression.
“Your mind is constantly going to be thinking of the worst possible situations — what if my family gets hurt, what if my friends get hurt — and it’s difficult to live a normal life when you’re preoccupied with these thoughts,” he said.
Kristina Karasyk, a Ukrainian student at City University, says she started getting panic attacks when the war started. Before that, she’d gone “a good two years” without having an attack.
“I hear about the war so often through social media and the news, so I end up going through this guilt-tripping journey, thinking of why I deserve to be here and they’re there,” she said.
Listen: Karasyk talking about her panic attacks
Though Karasyk has been feeling overwhelmed, across the Atlantic Ocean Ukrainian students like TMU’s Sofia Stadler have been feeling detached from emotions.
“It’s easy to become desensitized, but with something this horrific, the feeling doesn’t fade out, it’s always very fresh,” said Stadler, a first-year student who has always wanted to visit Ukraine.
“It’s like you’re detached from being able to do everything you need to do in your daily life,” she said, “but eventually those feelings catch up to you.”
Stadler says she’s surrounded herself with people who understand the history and magnitude of the situation in order to help cope with her feelings.
“I’ve been very fortunate to become a part of the Ukrainian students club,” she said. “Even though we’re a very small club and there’s not a lot of us on campus, even if our ties to Ukrainian culture and heritage may be different, it’s really nice to have that support.”
Seeking support from fellow Ukrainians has become a coping mechanism for many students at both TMU and City University. They say it makes their struggles a lot less isolating.
Karasyk says that the war has helped her connect with other students from Ukraine who have all said they struggled to eat and sleep since news of the war broke out.
“I’ve met a lot of Ukrainians that I’ve never spoken to before and it’s nice to be able to band together as one, in a time that feels so divisive,” she said. “I’m grateful to have met them.”
Stadler says grouping together has also allowed more fortunate students to speak up on behalf of those who simply don’t have the resources to do so.
“We really do look out for each other and support each other,” said Stadler. “In times like these though, it shouldn’t fall on the students to go out of their way to ask for support, especially when they’re dealing with so much.”
Alexandra Holyk, the president of the Ukrainian Students’ Club at TMU, says she’s had students from both the club and school reach out to her looking for resources.
“(TMU) hasn’t been able to provide much for students, unfortunately, so I’ve been directing students to other institutions and the support they offer,” said Holyk, who is in her third year at TMU. “It’s been difficult. We only know so many supports available, usually based on things we find through social media posts and stuff like that.”
Holyk says the Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union put out a letter to all post-secondary institutions asking for more support.
“I don’t believe (TMU) ever answered to be honest,” she said. “The university hasn’t reached out to the Ukrainian students’ association at (TMU) either. Neither has the RSU (Ryerson Students’ Union). That says a lot I think.”
TMU president Mohamed Lachemi says the university has always prioritized the community’s mental health and well-being.
“The university has invested significant resources and we continue to provide additional support in conflict services and program accommodations,” said Lachemi.
He says the university has contacted each of its 27 Ukrainian students to offer support and services, and will continue to assist them during this difficult time.
Through consultations with the community, TMU discussed its budget for the coming year, where Lachemi says mental health has become a regular topic for discussion.
“I can tell you that mental health and well-being of our students has always been a priority year after year,” Lachemi said.
LISTEN: Mohamed Lachemi’s message to Ukrainian students
Anthony Finkelstein, president of City University, says his school is offering financial and academic support for Ukrainian students.
“We have prioritized access to counselling and individual tutors, and course directors are reaching out to their students,” said Finkelstein via email.
Even with the universities’ statements of support, students say they still feel their struggles aren’t being truly understood.
After watching an ongoing conflict between Russia and the Ukraine for the last eight years, when Russian President Vladimir Putin finally declares war on a random Thursday afternoon, it’s shocking, said Stadler.
“It’s just something that I really can’t wrap my head around, because it’s your biggest fear coming true,” said Stadler. “Something that’s only existed in your head, existing in real life now.”
This story was a collaboration between students at The Creative School in Toronto Metropolitan University and City, University of London.
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