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War in Ukraine: Trauma and Repair

The war in Ukraine has been top of mind for so many people in the YU community because of the many personal, professional and spiritual connections that the University has with that part of the world. To help people find their footing as they react to the news coming out of Ukraine, the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, with support from a number of YU-affiliated groups,* convened the fourth of a series of panel discussions bringing the academic expertise of Yeshiva University to bear on both understanding the war in Ukraine and promoting acts of chesed [charity] to bring it to an end. “Psychologists and Social Workers Reflect on Trauma and Repair,” introduced by Dr. Selma Botman (provost and vice president for academic affairs) and moderated by Dr. Jess Olson (associate professor of Jewish history), brought together experts from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology to explain how trauma affects human beings in such extreme situations and what can be done to help them weather the attacks of trauma on the mind, soul and body.
  • Jordan Bate: Assistant Professor, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology
  • Vera Békés: Assistant Professor, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology
  • Nancy Beckerman, LCSW: Professor, Chair Advanced Clinical Practice, Director of Faculty Mentoring, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
  • Lisa Henshaw, LCSW: Assistant Professor, Chair Trauma Curriculum, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Dr. Henshaw began by explaining that we should understand the word “trauma” to mean something “that presents a threat to one’s physical integrity and safety,” and that can include both actual events suffered firsthand as well as events experienced indirectly, such as hearing about an incident through the news. Concerning the war in Ukraine, Dr. Henshaw characterized what people are undergoing as a complex collective trauma because it involves a series of heavy assaults happening over time coming from multiple directions with diverse effects—in short, a bombardment, both literal and figurative. Dr. Henshaw also pointed that the historical and racial trauma endured by this region for centuries deepens the loss, grief and rage of the present moment, adding additional layers of complexity to what people, both individually and collectively, are being subjected to. Social workers have to factor in all these aspects when diagnosing and treating the individual, knowing that the traumatic reactions can be triggered in varied ways ranging from the individual’s life narrative to the sociopolitical context, from biological needs to large-scale power dynamics. “It’s a balance to understand the implications of all these different nuances of trauma on an individual's life as well as on the collective life of the community.” Dr. Beckerman played off the context set up by Dr. Henshaw by focusing on war refugee trauma. She cited the staggering statistics about the number of people displaced from Ukraine as well as within the borders of the country itself, the majority of whom are women and children. “Refugee trauma speaks to a profound and at times incapacitating sense of loss,” Dr. Beckerman noted. “We can only imagine the toll that’s been taken by the forced separation from families, homes, and country and community of origin.” What compounds the loss and all of its attendant anxiety and despair is when the abrupt shift from living a life regulated by routine and known quantities becomes stretched into the twilight of living in a refugee camp, living, as Dr. Beckerman described it, “with the existential unknown” while still experiencing “unspeakable and compounded loss.” The work to be done by social workers, therapists and others has to be grounded in this knowledge so that the work they do is premised on efforts at social integration, establishment of a unified self-identity, mastery of language and resilience in the face of possible discrimination by others, just to name a few of the challenges. Even as crucial, if not more so, is that in situations like living in a refugee camp, “families become trauma-organized systems, which means that all their patterns are related to the traumatic experience that they've been living through” and helpers must provide the space for “safe engagement,” which often means doing more listening than talking and allowing people to start the conversations and to follow their rhythms. Dr. Vera Békés spoke about the short- and long-term psychological consequences, including moral injury and transgenerational trauma, and the power and presence of resilience. For her, “trauma is something that overwhelms the capacity of the individual to cope with a certain event,” which can have both immediate responses (e.g., anger, sadness, grief, self-blame, moral outrage) and delayed reactions (e.g., numbness, denial, living in survival mode and full-blown PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder). It can also persist over time, both the time of an individual’s life but “also passed through to the next generations.” It is also true, however, according to her research, that also over time, these trauma responses can lessen in intensity, demonstrating that many people can “bounce back,” which Dr. Békés considers the essence of resilience, “conceptualized as an ability to go back to pre-trauma levels of functioning.” Even more surprising in the research is that resilience, rather than being a rare thing, “is the most common reaction after experiencing traumatic events.” All of which is to say that there are many “trajectories that people can follow” in response to traumatic events, and diagnosis and treatment need to be aware of these to be effective. Dr. Jordan Bate, in her focus on the effects of war on children, noted that “psychologists, and more specifically psychoanalysis, have had a long history of engaging with the community, and particularly with children, in times of conflict and war.” She cited the work of Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, who co-created the War Nurseries in and around London to care for children and families during the Blitz, and John Bowlby, who elaborated attachment theory when he observed that children sent from London to the countryside where they lived safely in foster homes “still suffered detrimental effects, not due to violence but due to the separation from their parents.” She started with this background because their findings, and the body of research based on them, “are still really relevant when we talk about how children are impacted by war and how we can care for them.” In essence, children need, first, a primary caregiver who can be a “safe haven” and help them make sense of their experiences and, second, a home restored when events have stripped them of a home because, quoting Anna Freud, “home is the place to where all children are determined to return.” In short, helping children survive trauma means doing what is needed “to support their attachment figures and their attachment network,” which, in turn, will “support their well-being and their overall quality of life.” Given this, when the word “resilience” is used with children, it is less about individualistic traits, like emotional intelligence or cognitive coping strategies, and more about “considering the contexts that they are embedded in, namely their family and community” and working to make those strong enough to buoy the children. In the context of war, “we need to focus on providing spaces where children and parents and communities can be children, parents and communities, where they can engage in recreation and connection and expression that doesn’t, especially for children, need to be talking. Being able to create and express themselves through art or writing or dance or theater or play are all really important resources for children to have.” In the Q&A that followed, the discussion touched upon where people who want to help can direct their contributions, the importance of self-care for providers, the overlay of the Ukraine trauma on two years of COVID, how trauma is transferred across generations in both families and cultures, and trauma-informed teaching and education.  

Other Ukraine events:

* War on Ukraine Series Co-Sponsors
  • Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
  • Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies
  • Center for Israel Studies
  • Yeshiva University Political Action Club
  • Dunner Political Science Society
  • Yeshiva University College Democrats