UF Health Providers Extend Mental Health Training to Ukrainian Healthcare Personnel

Ana Turner, MD

By: Ana Turner, MD

In a collaborative effort between the Gainesville and Jacksonville Departments of Psychiatry, four UF psychiatrists provided mental health training to nearly 300 healthcare providers actively working throughout Ukraine on January 25, 2024.

On that date, which happened to be Ukrainian President Zelensky’s birthday, Drs. Marlene Goodfriend, Kitty Leung, Ana Turner, and Joseph Thornton covered topics related to Disaster Psychiatry. Ken Witkowich, the Campaign Coordinator for United Help Ukraine , a 501(c)(3) that liaises with approximately 50 Ukrainian hospitals, organized the training. “Many Ukrainian hospitals and medical facilities are operating under the most difficult circumstances with medical professionals pushed to the very limits of endurance, supplies, and their training. We are hoping to offer them qualified psychiatric advice and suggestions for helping their patients cope with the trauma of war.”

Marlene Goodfriend, MD
Marlene Goodfriend, MD

Witkowich made arrangements to have two UF Ukrainian students fluent in Ukrainian and English, Anna Meltsaieva and Olya Liholit, available as an emergency standby provision. “I have planned for this emergency because, sadly, Ukrainian civilian areas are routinely targeted by the Russians. There is always the terrible chance that a city will fall under attack or a utility infrastructure will be hit. Since Ukraine is a huge nation, it is possible that some participants of the webinar could remain on the webinar during an attack while others would be disconnected.”

Kitty Leung, MD
Kitty Leung, MD

A 2022 United Nations survey showed that the Ukrainian people felt that the most significant impact of the war was on their mental health. A 2019 WHO study estimated that the prevalence of mental disorders in a conflict-affected population is around 22%. Moreover, they estimated the prevalence of severe mental health disorders was around 5%. Therefore, around nine million people will suffer from mental disorders due to Russia’s invasion, and around two million will suffer from severe mental health disorders. As a result, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health predicts that four million people would need mental health drugs and as many as 15 million would need other psychosocial support. “But keep in mind that the majority of people recover from the impact of a disaster,” said Dr. Goodfriend, a board-certified pediatrician and psychiatrist with extensive experience working for various non-governmental organizations, including as a mental health advisor with Doctors Without Borders.

“It has been shown that people who feel they had good social support after a crisis cope better than those who feel they were not well supported. Because of this, linking people with loved ones and social support is critical,” said Dr. Leung, Medical Director of outpatient services and Associate Program Director of the UF Jacksonville Psychiatry Residency Program. The team offered strategies for calming interventions, positive coping skills, and Psychological First Aid.

“On average, 30-40% of direct victims of disaster will experience one or more disorders such as PTSD, Depression or Anxiety, but early intervention reduces the risk,” said Dr. Turner, Program Director for the UF Jacksonville Psychiatry Residency and Street Psychiatrist for UF Gainesville at Sulzbacher.

Joseph E. Thornton, MD Adjunct Assistant Professor
Joseph E. Thornton, MD

Ten to twenty percent of responders to disaster are at risk themselves to experience mental health disorders. So, Joseph Thornton, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Physician Director for Quality for UF Gainesville, discussed virtual resources and technology as an aid for provider self-care. “It was an honor to help those people of Ukraine defending our own freedom,” said Thornton.

Witkowich has made further arrangements for the team to provide a separate Q&A session for mental health professionals of the National Rehabilitation Center “Unbroken,” boasting 3,000 beds and a dedicated staff of 4,300 professionals. Throughout the wartime, they have evolved into the largest hub for receiving the wounded in the rear, tending to over 18,000 casualties, including 2,000 children. Pioneering efforts include the opening of a psychiatric ward within a general hospital and the establishment of mental health centers during times of conflict. Throughout the collaborations, Witkowich expressed his utmost appreciation for the efforts of the team. “The many lives you have touched by your actions will never be able to actually utter the words ‘thank you’ to you, but please know that my thanks are in unison with their thanks, as my suffering is in unison with their suffering. May you be abundantly blessed for your compassion, which is evident to me and to my charity colleagues.”

Learn more about Unite for Ukraine and how you can help.