19 October 2023
In the early hours of Thursday 24 February 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. Since then, there have been missile strikes across the country, including residential areas of Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second biggest city of 1.4 million people), which has been bombarded with heavy rocket fire. Ukrainian officials have reported that at least 11 people were killed and dozens were hospitalised as a result of these attacks. Amnesty International has also reported the death of a child and two adults who were sheltering in a kindergarten in Okhtyrka when it was hit by cluster munitions. On 1 March, Belarus joined the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
According to the UN, half a million civilians have fled Ukraine since the invasion began. The refugees are mainly women, children and elderly men, as all men aged between 18 and 60 years have been prohibited from leaving the country. Refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova. At present, reports from border crossing points suggest that Ukrainian citizens are being warmly received by authorities and residents alike in these neighbouring countries. Sadly, there are reports of discrimination against people of African and Asian heritage, including many university medical students, trying to flee Ukraine.
Which students are likely to be affected?
Students with Ukrainian heritage
According to the 2016 census, there were 14, 446 people with Ukrainian ancestry living in NSW. At the time, 16% of this population with Ukrainian ancestry were aged 19 years and younger. In 2016, NSW local government areas with the highest numbers of people with Ukrainian ancestry were, Sydney City, Randwick City, Waverley Council, Bayside Council and Newcastle City. As reported by Multicultural NSW, the first wave of Ukrainian migration to Australia took place prior to World War I. However, more significant numbers of Ukrainian migrants began arriving in Australian from late 1948 on conditional two-year work contracts. After completing their contracts, most of these migrants settled in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Newcastle and Wollongong. Since gaining independence in 1991, small numbers of Ukrainians from communities in Poland and Yugoslavia migrated to Australia as skilled migrants, in particular, scientists, mathematicians and computer programmers. A church (St Andrew’s Ukrainian Catholic Church), Ukrainian club, and youth centre are located in Lidcombe, NSW.
Many students with Ukrainian heritage that are at school today, are likely second, third or fourth generation Ukrainian migrants. These students may have spent their whole lives in Australia and may or may not speak Ukrainian or Russian. Regardless of their perceived ties to Ukraine, these students likely have relatives in Ukraine who they are worried about, they may be witnessing the grief, worry and anger of their parents and family in Australia, and indeed, be personally struggling with sadness, hopelessness, horror and grief for a country and a people they feel a strong bond with.
- Students may be directly or indirectly exposed to images, footage and audio of the atrocities occurring in Ukraine leading to vicarious trauma symptoms including intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbances.
- The extremely distressing circumstances in many families may lead to tension and conflict within the home, which adversely impacts on children.
- The current crisis in Ukraine is having a substantial impact on the Ukrainian diaspora, many of whom are deeply worried about loved ones being caught up in shellings, lack of access to essentials and refugees’ exposure to the elements as they try to flee Ukraine. There is also intense fear and deep sadness amongst Ukrainians for the future of Ukraine.
Students with Russian heritage
Many Russians, both within and outside of Russia, are vehemently opposed to the military invasion of Ukraine. Despite protests being forbidden by Russian authorities, thousands have turned out across scores of Russian cities to protest against the invasion of Ukraine. Many Russians around the world are in shock and experiencing feelings of shame and fear in response to the military assault.
Ethnic Russians are the largest minority living in Ukraine and in 2001, comprised 17.3% of the population. Therefore, students in NSW who identify as Russian, may have family members living in Ukraine. Just like students with Ukrainian heritage in NSW, Russian students are at risk of vicarious trauma at this time and may be deeply worried about loved ones in Ukraine and/or Russia. These students and families may also hold fears for the safety of friends or family in Russia who are speaking out or protesting against the invasion of Ukraine.
According to Multicultural NSW, in 2016, there were 31, 664 people with Russian ancestry living in NSW. Local government areas with the largest numbers of residents with Russian ancestry were Sydney City, Randwick City, Waverley Council, Bayside Council, Woollahra Municipal Council and Hornsby Shire.
Students with links to surrounding countries and beyond
This is a frightening time for most people around the globe, children and adults alike. Many students are fearful of the expansion of violence to other countries outside of Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war. Scenes in the media of war and of people fleeing the Ukraine may be triggering to other students who have had these experiences themselves.
How can I support my students?
Whole of class
- In high school settings, you may consider communicating with parents and guardians about your intention to make time during the school day to acknowledge the crisis unfolding in Ukraine. This will give parents/guardians the opportunity to discuss any concerns with you about how such discussions will be handled. Ideally, a School Counsellor is present to co-facilitate such a discussion. A class discussion may involve:
- Validating the emotions they feel in response to this crisis
- Reminding students of the supports available to them within the school community
- Inviting students to let you know if the situation is affecting their sleep, schoolwork, friendships or family life
- Talking to students about the risks of vicarious trauma through viewing/reading media/social media about the crisis and discussing how students can limit their exposure
- Acknowledging student desire to support people and animals affected by the crisis and discuss how the class might show their support through fundraising for a charity. Schools need to be mindful that this may be a cause of tension amongst students and/or parents depending on their perspectives on the conflict, and decisions about this should be made thoughtfully.
How can I Support Students with Ukrainian, Russian or Belarusian heritage?
- For high school students, ensure that at least one staff member with whom the student has rapport, has been in touch with the student to ask how they and their loved ones are coping with the situation. Arrange to catch up with the student regularly to monitor their wellbeing.
- For primary school students, ensure that a staff member checks in regularly with a parent/ guardian to discuss how they and their child are coping. Allow students and parents/guardians to control how much they disclose to you.
- Ask the student (and/or parent/guardian) what would help them most at this time and make appropriate referrals. Students and families can be given the Witness to War helpline number (1800 845 198). This multilingual service can provide a brief needs assessment, incidental counselling, information and referral. Referrals to STARTTS can also be made by completing our referral form.
- Provide students with a predictable class routine and prepare them for any changes where possible. Explain the purpose of school work activities.
- Discuss options for calming and comfort with students for if they become overwhelmed during lessons or while trying to complete schoolwork.
- It can be helpful to offer some suggestions for wellbeing breaks throughout the day, such as gentle stretching, exercise, connecting with a friend, taking time to draw or paint, playing a game with a household member, going outside and noticing small, beautiful things, taking five deep, diaphragmatic breaths with slow exhales.
- Remove as many additional stressors from the students’ life as possible. For instance, consider offering an alternative time to sit tests and exams, an extension on assignment due dates and flexibility around schoolwork completion. Not only may students be struggling to concentrate and focus on these tasks at this very difficult time, but it is important that students can focus on spending time being comforted by friends and family and talking to loved ones as they try to process what is happening and brace for the tumultuous situation that is unfolding.
- Remind the student that education can serve as a refuge from the stressful situation providing routine, purpose, interest, positivity and hope. Remind the student how they can seek help with schoolwork.
- Consider the topics that the student is currently studying in their subjects. Some topics in history and geography that reference war, violence, human rights violations and poverty can be particularly triggering. Students won’t be able to learn if they are being emotionally overwhelmed by their personal associations with such themes. Such topics might be challenging for a student who is presently redefining their worldview while traumatic events unfold. It may be important to consider how to sensitively present these topics and be aware of the needs of students to have control over their experiences during this time. Students may need to be given the option for alternative work to complete.
- Work with the student to identify at least two school staff members who the student can reach out to throughout the school day if they are struggling.
- Also ensure the student knows how to contact 24/7 counselling services such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Lifeline (13 11 14) and BeyondBlue (1300 22 4636).
What are the signs that a student may be struggling?
Students who are feeling overwhelmed by their reaction to the situation in Ukraine may show signs or report symptoms of their distress in one or more of the following ways:
- Having trouble concentrating. This may present as students asking for teacher instructions to be repeated, non-completion of work
- Being more quiet or more talkative than usual
- Sadness and tearfulness
- Outbursts of anger and/or aggression
- Reduced or increased appetite
- Lethargy or hyperactivity
- Stomach aches, headaches and/or a feeling of heaviness in their limbs
- Expressions of feelings of guilt at being in Australia, while loved ones are suffering overseas
- Expressions of feeling helpless and/or hopeless
- Spending a lot of time on their phone. Students may be feeling a very strong need to stay in constant contact with loved ones both here and overseas. Students may be anxious to receive updates about the safety of loved ones in Ukraine.
Supporting Parents and Carers
Many family members of students will be deeply affected by the crisis unfolding in Ukraine. Many families will appreciate a phone call from the school (for instance, from a teacher or Community Liaison Officer), checking in with their welfare at this difficult time. It can be helpful to prepare parents/guardians via SMS ahead of time, that you will be calling and what the purpose of your call is. The staff member could ask the parent/guardian if they are happy to receive a follow-up phone call in a couple of weeks’ time to see how they are coping.
Schools can provide families with STARTTS’ contact details (9646 6800), or offer to support them to make a referral for counselling at STARTTS.
As educators and counsellors, we are not immune to the impacts of trauma. You may find that the crisis in Ukraine has affected you personally, perhaps through personal links to Ukraine, triggering of previous traumas or through empathising with affected students, colleagues and community members. Some symptoms you may recognise in yourself include a change in appetite, sleep and/or mood, nightmares, intrusive imagery, trouble concentrating, memory problems, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to violence and/or feelings of despair and hopelessness. There are several avenues through which you can seek support.
- Through your workplace, seeking professional supervision and/or through your Employee Assistance Program.
- Private psychological services. You can talk to your GP about a mental health care plan.
- Lifeline Australia (Call: 13 11 14) provides free, confidential support and is available 24/7
- STARTTS counselling services are available to anyone in NSW who has survived trauma (including inter-generational trauma) and has had a refugee, asylum seeker or refugee-like experience.
- STARTTS in Schools has produced a series of professional learning videos on Vicarious Trauma, Resilience and Self Care.
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 1: Introduction
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 2: Consequences of Trauma
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 3: Impacts on the Practitioner
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 4: Boundaries
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 5: Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth
- Vicarious Trauma and Resilience Part 6: Self Care and Seeking Support