War, Misinformation and Mental Health—a Therapist’s Perspective
Content warning: This post references instances of war, death and violence.
It’s been just over a month since Russia invaded Ukraine. Millions of people have fled the country, thousands of people have died, and those in Canada (home to some of the largest populations of both Ukrainian and Russian diasporas) have watched the conflict progress.
We spoke with Margarita Iarovaia, psychotherapist, trauma specialist, and partner therapist with First Session, about her perspective as someone with both Russian and Ukrainian roots watching the crisis in Ukraine unfold. She shared with us some of the mental health impacts of this war, and how conflict affects our identity—especially when that identity is literally divided between one home nation attacking another. She also spoke about how misinformation, in particular, affected hers and her family’s reality and her sense of identity.
Can you tell us a bit about your connection to Russia and Ukraine?
I have family in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which is about 40km from the Russian border. While most of my family is ethnically Russian, my mother's side of the family ended up in Ukraine as a result of the USSR falling apart. That said, my mother was born and raised in Kharkiv. Every summer of my childhood was spent in Kharkiv (I was born in Saint Petersburg). Since immigrating to Canada in 1999, we've gone back and forth to Kharkiv every 2 years or so, sometimes every year.
From the perspective of growing up in Ukraine, to see places that are imperative to childhood memories be destroyed is absolutely devastating. For me personally, it started to feel like I was losing my memories, too. From the Russian perspective … I wouldn't even know where to start. For me, there's never been a difference between "Russian" and "Ukrainian", other than the political aspects and land borders. We're neighbouring nations. Who are they fighting against, our neighbours in culture, religion, and tradition?
What happens to us when there is conflict between parts of our identity?
I've had to really check in with myself as the first couple of days [of the Russian invasion of Ukraine] brought a lot of shame. I am Russian, I am proud to be Russian. I love my language, my food, and my culture. But the leader of my country does not represent me, my needs, or my interests.
Russian media is heavily controlled [showing that] the Western world has always been the enemy. I'm sure you've seen a tweet or post here and there about how some Russian native has reached out to family in Russia from Ukraine and their relatives don't believe them because that's not what Russians see on the news.
Generally speaking, when conflict arises, a number of things can happen: tension, anxiety, stress, depression, shame. Though, in parallel, human nature is always driving us to solve conflict, to ease tension. If we can’t find a “solution” for whatever reason, those same feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, etc. increase and we get trapped in this cycle. Ultimately, we, most likely, end up feeling really helpless.”
What is the mental health impact of misinformation?
In our day and age, information comes in sickeningly abundant amounts. It’s everywhere and it’s very hard to miss or ignore.
Information affects our belief systems. It can create them, validate them, challenge them. Information can be wrong, either intentionally (disinformation) or unintentionally (misinformation).
The problem with access to this much information is that it tends to become very divided: right, wrong, good, bad, stupid, smart. However, if we read one source that agrees with us (we’re good) and another that doesn’t (we’re bad), it creates tension, increases our own uncertainty, and then it affects our security with ourselves. These extremes affect our coping skills, which are meant to help soothe us.
In other cases, dis- and misinformation can perpetuate stereotypes, stigmas, can increase isolation, and the list really goes on.
Something that really stuck with me when discussing this topic with colleagues is to ask myself: Who / what benefits from my belief in this?
By turning the focal point back onto ourselves, we can pause to reflect on the conflict/disagreement. If my belief benefits me, there’s a chance I’m going to feel better about it, more secure in myself, and in my decision making skills. If the other person benefits from it, it’s a great place to start asking how, what, when, and why?
Introspection is powerful, especially when we're trying to filter the information that we’re getting. The wonderful thing about opinions is that they’re all correct.
Margarita has family in both Russia and Ukraine. We’re very thankful for her taking the time to share her personal story with us, as well as her expertise on these topics as a therapist.
Margarita Iarovaia is a registered psychotherapist and Canadian certified counsellor who works with people through the intricate landscapes of trauma, sex, relationships, mindfulness, and identity. With a compassionate heart and a wealth of clinical knowledge, Margarita has dedicated her career to helping others heal, grow, and thrive.