In Mariupol, a city near the line of conflict in eastern Ukraine, some districts are especially close to the fighting. The Left Bank district, where I work as a psychologist in a Youth Centre, is one of these districts. The purpose of my work is to provide psychosocial support for young people.
Young people who attend our Centre know only too well what an armed conflict is, as they have personally experienced the horror of shelling. They know very well what to do in case of shelling, where the shelters are, some have had to hide. At school, at home, in the street, teenagers hear the sounds of an armed conflict.
Different teenagers come to our Youth Centre, with different problems, but almost all of them add up to one: the effects of fighting. Often, teenagers don’t even understand what is happening to them, so together we try to find the cause of their troubles. For example, a good student begins to behave aggressively, a cheerful and a sociable girl suddenly becomes sullen, and many internally displaced persons still can’t integrate into the city and establish social ties.
I can speak about an example from my practice: “A 15-year-old boy named Victor* started attending our Youth Centre. Teachers at school, his mother, the Youth Centre staff and neighbours started complaining about the young man’s anti-social behaviour. Victor really behaved defiantly, and sometimes even aggressively. I made repeated attempts to establish contact and talk to him, but Victor rejected my attempts. During one of our art therapy sessions, where we worked with associative cards, Victor took a card and changed colour, he sat down and said quietly: “And this is my older brother… He died two months ago in the conflict”. After this session, the young man himself wanted to speak with me. During an individual consultation he finally shared his emotions, which he held back for a long time. According to him, he now became the main man in the family and had no right to show weakness – for him childhood was over. I continue working with Victor, his psycho-emotional state has become more stable, he and his mother moved to a “quieter” district of the city, but he continues attending our Youth Centre.
There are lots of these stories, each of them is unique in its own way, and each requires attention and a special approach.
Very often teenagers, who come to the Youth Centre, don’t understand what is happening to them on a physical level, when they become constrained, start stammering, have excessive energy or feel sluggish. All of this is directly caused by stress they experience over and over again because of the three-year conflict.
Together with the teenagers we try to overcome all these difficulties, we do art therapy, where they learn to understand and accept their feelings and emotions, we use relaxation exercises, teach them to relax their body and have their mind rest, or just discuss topics that worry them (sometimes it is enough to just listen to them).
The difficulty of my work in this district of the city is that the wellbeing of the teenagers improves only for a while, and the problem comes back after another shelling and we have to start the work all over again, as their psycho-emotional state worsens sharply.
The most important and meaningful thing for the teenagers attending the Youth Centre is to be listened to, heard, understood and accepted. This is what my main task is: to help them remain just teenagers, children, and enjoy even the smallest joys so that they can feel positive emotions and are able to cope with difficulties and hardships and so they do not bring the “trauma of an armed conflict” into their adulthood.
*The name of the affected teenager has been changed to protect his identity.
Anastasiya Kashyra is a child and youth psychologist in one of four UNICEF-supported youth clubs run by the Mariupol Youth Union in eastern Ukraine. Anastasiya leads discussion groups, art therapy classes and provides personal counseling sessions to help young people address the emotional wounds of living through conflict.