Researchers collaborate on mental health training to support Ukrainian children

Friday, October 7, 2022

Claire Crooks, Sharon Hoover and Dr. Jeff Bostic (left to right, centre of front row) with STRONG training participants, Sept. 2022 in Prague, Czech Republic

Claire Crooks, Sharon Hoover and Dr. Jeff Bostic (left to right, centre of front row) with STRONG training participants, Sept. 2022 in Prague, Czech Republic

A collaborative team including Dr. Claire Crooks, the director of the Centre for School Mental Health, recently travelled to the Czech Republic to train a group of social workers and psychologists on the mental health program STRONG (Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups).

The training prepared the 34 participants to teach additional mental health professionals how to implement STRONG to reduce psychological distress among young Ukrainians affected by the Russian war.

Since February, an estimated 130,000 Ukrainian youth have fled to the Czech Republic to escape the armed conflict in their home country. More are internally displaced, staying within Ukraine’s borders but forced to leave their homes due to the war. Amid resettlement in different cities or countries, the children and teens now have to adjust to new environments and navigate the mental health effects of war, in addition to maintaining their education. It’s a combination that can lead to difficulties with school attendance, learning and social adjustment.

“When kids are experiencing a lot of distress, they can't learn optimally,” explained Crooks. “In helping develop their coping skills and resilience – and even their friendship skills – they're actually going to do better in school.”

Training the trainers

Crooks, alongside Dr. Sharon Hoover from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Jeff Bostic from Georgetown University, facilitated the multi-day training at the invitation of ČOSIV, the Czech Society for Inclusive Education. The social workers and psychologists who participated will now take what they’ve learned and share that knowledge with colleagues to help implement STRONG as widely as possible across the Czech Republic and potentially in Ukraine.

For Lenka Felcmanová, ČOSIV’s chairwoman, the training was an important step towards providing mental health support for the young Ukrainians finding refuge in the Czech Republic. “The STRONG program gives psychologists, special education teachers and teachers effective tools to support the inclusion and resilience of children and youth who found a temporary home in the Czech Republic.”

Kateřina Kubátová, the STRONG project manager at ČOSIV, added about the reach of the mental health program, “The possibility of spreading STRONG further within the Czech regions is an extremely valuable step for our society in terms of being prepared for an optimal way of welcoming, supporting and integrating the newcoming Ukrainian children and youth affected by displacement.”

Of the 34 training participants, 10 are Ukrainian psychologists working in the Czech Republic and exploring how to implement STRONG with internally displaced children and teens. Kateryna Bikir is one of those psychologists and said her training experience allowed her to start collaborating with fellow participants to set up STRONG quickly. “[In] my opinion, [STRONG] is a very important project because so many kids will feel better and less stressed. I felt it on me and my kids how difficult the immigration process can be. And I see huge potential in this program. Actually, I collaborated with other participants and very soon we are going to start [our] first group.”

Supporting resilience of newcomers

Since 2017, Crooks and the Centre for School Mental Health team, in partnership with U.S. and Ontario colleagues, have worked with School Mental Health Ontario to roll out STRONG to address the mental health needs of refugees arriving in the province’s schools.

From that initial implementation, the program has expanded to include community organizations that support newcomer youth.

This adaptability is a feature of STRONG that Crooks said can help reach greater numbers of Ukrainian children and teens affected by the war. “Fifty-seven thousand Ukrainians are entering Czech school systems, and thousands more who aren’t in schools still need support. One-on-one mental health care isn’t an option and these mental health teams are looking for some way to provide support to huge numbers of children.”

STRONG works from a strengths-based perspective to help youth cope with stress while building problem-solving and goal-setting skills. It promotes resilience and helps young newcomers reframe their view of themselves to be more positive. Participants take part in group and individual sessions, where they learn how trauma affects their bodies and minds and develop mindfulness practices to ground themselves when they feel distressed. They also create their journey narrative – a storytelling strategy that allows the youth to process and share their migration journey and adjustment to their new homes.

“Fleeing war is not a usual human experience, to be ripped away from all you’ve known and be dropped somewhere else,” added Crooks. “So helping children understand how they can process the feelings and reactions to their experiences is crucial to their ongoing development.”