I didn't know I had so much strength in me
Interview with Ukrainian psychologist Oksana Kryvonogova
Psychologist Oksana decided long before the war that it was her mission to help Ukrainian families. In 2013, she founded Healthy Society. Together with colleagues from Odesa, Kharkiv, Zakarpattya and Lviv, she developed a new care system that helps families in their natural surroundings. With great success.
“The war started across the street from my house. At 5:00 am, a missile struck. The floor shook, and car alarms went off. At first, we thought it was fireworks. We couldn't believe that a war had started. What were we supposed to do? It was a weekday. Just go to work? What do people do during a war?"
Healthy Society took immediate action
Oksana and her team felt distraught. But soon, messages from the families they support poured in. “Our debit cards have been blocked! We didn't buy nappies and breakfast porridge!” No one had seen the war coming. Oksana and her team decided to help these families immediately. Products were stored in the house of Oksana's mother, and from there, they brought the products to the families.
Support group for the caregivers
Oksana contacted her business partner ARQ National Psychotrauma Centre, to help her team. When asked “What do you need?” she did not have an answer at first. ARQ started a support group. “We met with the therapists, we talked and everyone cried. On the third day, I felt much stronger again”, Oksana says. “For a while it seemed like there was no more life. But it's a different life, a life we didn't know before.”
Early help for families
The war impacts parents in particular, Oksana notes. The parent's mental wellbeing largely determines the children's wellbeing as well. Because of the war, Healthy Society now takes on all families in need of counselling. Including the families who fled from regions with many bombardments, such as Mykolaiv, Kherson and Kharkiv. Their situation is more complicated and they are more likely to develop complex psychotrauma symptoms.
War and trauma
ARQ has been providing training for Healthy Society social workers since the beginning of the war. Oksana: “ARQ is very flexible and adapts the programmes to our needs. That is an important skill: to understand exactly what is needed at that moment.” In the beginning, there was need for theoretical knowledge about psychotrauma. Later, there was more emphasis on developing new skills and supporting the social workers in dealing with the huge workload and living in a war.
"The sirens are part of our lives. There are military forces and checkpoints everywhere. At first it was very frightening, now we have got used to it."
Regaining their resilience
Oksana and her team continue to work hard and untiringly. They put their heart and soul into helping families by identifying the desired support early on. Her mission is more relevant now than ever. Oksana sees the families changing. At first, they were confused, but now many are regaining their resilience. She has also discovered a new side of herself: “I didn't know I had so much strength in me.”
About Healthy Society
Oksana Kryvonogova (44) founded Healthy Society, an NGO for early interventions with families. In Ukraine, children with behavioural problems were previously admitted directly to a psychiatric hospital.
“At the time, I worked as a psychologist in a psychiatric clinic in the children's ward. I had to diagnose the children. Only that made no sense, because what were we assessing? We took the child away from their natural environment and isolated them from their caregivers. Naturally, the child then behaved differently and became stressed. It was incomprehensible to me.”
Later, Oksana learned from foreign colleagues that it can be done differently. How? By visiting and supporting the families in their natural living environment. Early interventions with families became her mission with Healthy Society. And with success. Although in the first years they were still seen as, as she puts it herself, “a group of crazy white crows.”
People did not always understood this new service, and parents were suspicious. Ukraine had a medical model: a diagnosis was made, and intensive therapy started. Home visits usually meant that a social worker came to assess the family. Sometimes, they even took the child away.
Oksana rolled out the new service in Odesa. “Since I was already working in psychiatry, I just walked up to our head doctor and told him about my idea. He said, 'Try it'.” Oksana and her team were given a room where they started working with families. They also had many conversations with officials and ministers about the importance of early interventions.
Ten years later, GPs refer families and the service is officially recognised in Ukraine. Because of the war, Healthy Society's social workers increasingly specialise in psychotrauma and share their new knowledge with other colleagues.
ARQ National Psychotrauma Centre and Healthy Society have been working closely together since the start of the war in Ukraine in training local healthcare professionals in dealing with psychotrauma and providing psychosocial support for the staff themselves. Thanks to the support of the Dutch foundation Giro555.