War and terror almost always produce trauma among soldiers and civilians around the world, and Israel and Ukraine are certainly no exception.
Prof. Danny Brom, founder and CEO of Jerusalem’s METIV – the Israel Psychotrauma Center – at Herzog Medical Center traveled to Kyiv at the invitation of their First Lady, Olena Zelenska, to present at the gathering of “First Ladies and Gentlemen” from around the globe.
The symposium is comprised mostly of the spouses of countries’ presidents and prime ministers and aims to find effective solutions to humanitarian problems through “soft power” and the development of partnerships among the participants.
A total of 200 attended in person, including US secretary of state Anthony Blinken, American actor and film director Sean Penn, and English actor, broadcaster, and writer Stephen Fry.
The Netherlands-born Brom, a highly experienced clinical psychologist and psychotherapist with a specialty in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome, was invited to discuss the Israeli experience of psychological trauma from the perspective of a society both exposed to ongoing trauma and as one of the leaders in developing PTSD.
When he planned aliya many decades ago after establishing a psycho trauma center in the Netherlands, Dutch colleagues warned him that he would be “wasting his time, because there is no such thing as psycho trauma in Israel.”
He quickly learned this was not the case when he worked at Jerusalem’s Ezrath Nashim Hospital and met Yom Kippur War veterans with PTSD. At METIV, he also supervises academic research on the prevalence and condition of PTSD among IDF combatants.
In his speeches, Brom highlighted the importance of not pathologizing normal reactions to stress.
War’s toll on mental health
“Running to safety at a time of threat is not a disorder, it is mental health,” he told the audience in Kyiv.
“It is very important to not go and look for disorders at this moment.”
Brom explained that at a time of acute stress, it is important to seek support from family and friends and not to medicalize what he called “survival mode.”
Survival mode refers to the body’s response to trauma which is focused simply on survival and does not allow for complex, regulated psychological functioning, he added.
“While entry into survival mode appears to be automatic, recovery can be complicated, specifically when there is ongoing war and/or terrorism. When survival mode persists fully even in the absence of actual threat, we call it PTSD, a disorder that causes much suffering.”
Brom’s arrival at the summit was complicated. He flew to Warsaw where he met with the delegation and travelled overnight to Kyiv by private train as the skies above Ukraine are still closed due to the ongoing war.
He was then whisked away back to Warsaw that same day.
The third summit, held at St. Sophia of Kyiv National Reserve with the theme “Mental Health: Fragility and Resilience of the Future,” was attended by 29 participants in person or via video conference.
They were; First Lady of the Republic of Poland Agata Kornhauser-Duda, First Lady of the Republic of Türkiye Emine Erdoğan, First Lady of the Republic Cyprus Philippa Karsera, First Lady of the Republic of Kenya Rachel Ruto, First Lady of the State of Israel Michal Herzog (by video), Spouse of the President of the Republic of North Macedonia Elizabeta Gjorgievska, Spouse of the Federal President of the Federal Republic of Germany Elke Büdenbender, Spouse of the Prime Minister of Belize Rossana Briceňo, Spouse of the Federal President of the Republic of Austria Doris Schmidauer, First Lady of Albania Armanda Begaj, Spouse of the President of the European Council Amélie Derbaudrenghien, Spouse of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Akshata Murty, Spouse of the Prime Minister of Spain María Begoña Gómez Fernández, First Lady of Iceland Eliza Jean Reid, President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Spouse of the Prime Minister of Japan Yuko Kishіda, Her Royal Highness Crown Princess of Norway Mette-Marit, Her Majesty Queen of Sweden Silvia Renate, First Lady of the Republic of Lithuania Diana Nausėdienė, Partner of the President of the Slovak Republic Juraj Rizman, First Gentleman of the Republic of Slovenia Dr Aleš Musar, Spouse of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Anna Hakobyan, First Lady of the Republic of Estonia Sirje Karis, First Lady of the Czech Republic Eva Pavlová, First Lady of Serbia Tamara Vučić, Spouse of the Prime Minister of Sweden Birgitta Ed, Spouse of the Prime Minister of Denmark Bo Tengberg, First Lady of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Samina Alvi.
“It has long been an axiom for all conscious people, at least in the free world, that human life is important. It’s time to make it an axiom that its quality is also important. And mental health is the basis of this quality. A life of constant anxiety, fear, and uncertainty cannot be called of high quality,” said Zelenska, whose husband also spoke.
“Speaking of Ukraine, the world often uses the word ‘resilience’ to describe us. This is probably true of us. We understand it, and this is what we cherish – what we wish for each other, what we try to explore and develop. Resilience is the ability to go through trials and live a full life,” said the wife of the Ukrainian president.
“Personal resilience of each individual makes up the resilience of society. More the half of Ukrainians said that other people and communication with them help them to stay strong,” noted Zelenska.
The participants discussed how wars and conflicts affect mental health and whether it is possible to adapt to it.
According to a study conducted for the summit in Argentina, Brazil, the UK, Israel, Germany, Poland, the US, Turkey, Ukraine, Croatia, and Japan, it was found that the effects of war are felt by people all over the world and not only those directly in the conflict zones.
Every second person in the world believes that Russia’s war against Ukraine has affected their life and mental health.
Last year, by bringing together caring people from all over the world, the summit participants raised more than $6 million to purchase 92 modern mobile ICUs that are now saving the lives of Ukrainians. This year, one of the outcomes of the summit was the establishment of a network of medical partnerships among countries.