The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 had disastrous humanitarian consequences, driving many Ukrainians to leave and separating them from their loved ones, as well as exposing individuals of all ages to the devastation, suffering, and horrors of war. Many Ukrainians are expected to suffer from severe mental health consequences as a result of the prolonged conflict, but these consequences could be worsened by purposeful or unintentional nuclear events.

Researchers from Uniformed Services University in Maryland and Musashino University in Japan have published a report assessing some of the mental health issues that could arise if a nuclear event occurs in Ukraine. Their research, published in Wiley’s Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, provides solutions for governments and healthcare systems to prepare for the mental health consequences of such a disaster.

“Regardless of the level to which radiation exposure happens in the scenario in Ukraine,” the study’s authors, Joshua C. Morganstein, Robert J. Ursano, David M. Benedek, Mie Kurosawa, and Jun Shigemura, said in their report. “To respond to radiological disasters, health care systems must be capable of treating both direct radiation exposure health demands and large and complicated mental health concerns.”

The invasion of Russia has had the biggest impact on Ukrainians, but the long-running conflict has also harmed Ukraine’s neighbors and countries with economic ties to Ukraine. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs in Ukraine, the mental health consequences could damage both Ukrainian health-care systems and health-care systems in neighboring countries that are sheltering refugees or may be harmed by radioactive material emitted.

Morganstein and his colleagues conducted a study on earlier radiation disasters and investigated some of the mental health consequences of these events. This includes the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, as well as Three Mile Island in 1979, Chornobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011.

“These incidents produce anxiety, uncertainty, and heightened risk perception, as well as a diminished sense of safety, insomnia, increased use of alcohol and other substances, interpersonal conflict, and stigma or blaming within and between groups,” Morganstein and his colleagues wrote in their study. The prevalence of psychiatric problems (e.g., major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder) has dramatically increased, with some studies indicating that symptoms persist decades after the incident.

Previous research has found that disaster responders and women with young children have the highest rates of mental health difficulties following nuclear accidents or tragedies. Nonetheless, these instances have the potential to have a significant impact on all those who have been exposed to radiation, as well as those who are unsure of their exposure status. The researchers noted in their article that “The vast majority of citizens and health-care institutions are inexperienced with radioactive substances.”

This increases fear of the unknown and the unseen. Perception is frequently reduced after being exposed to radioactive chemicals, especially in small amounts. Uncertainty, regardless of actual exposure, causes predictable spikes in demand for public health care, but health care professionals who avoid the workplace for fear of contamination may limit access to care.”

According to Morganstein and his colleagues, it is critical for policymakers and health care professionals worldwide, but especially in Ukraine and neighboring countries, to begin planning for the mental health calamity that would result from a nuclear disaster. They outline several factors in their study that they feel governments and social workers should prioritize while planning for catastrophic disasters.

The team suggests that governments educate the public on the health risks associated with radiation exposure, as well as the habits that can reduce these risks or protect their families. This includes disseminating information about the normal evacuation procedures used in such cases, as well as strategies to prevent radiation exposure, such as the use of protective equipment and early warning signs of exposure.

Furthermore, Morgenstein and his colleagues stress the importance of successfully conveying in plain English to all residents which scientific sources they should trust in the event of an incident and what they should do at various degrees of radiation exposure. The researchers conclude by underlining the importance of early interventions aimed at fostering resilience and protecting the mental health of Ukrainians and people from neighboring countries.

The recent findings of this research team may encourage governments to take additional steps to prepare the general population for the potential impacts of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Furthermore, it may pave the way for future research on specialty drugs.

According to the experts, “while the future remains uncertain, developments in Ukraine heighten global anxieties about the potential of nuclear disasters.” In the case of a large-scale radioactive disaster, health care systems will be our first line of defense, and they must be prepared to deal with the mental health ramifications.

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