This is the warning of neuroscientist Professor Ali Jawaid of the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Poland and his colleagues in a letter to a leading journal. The researchers explained that the residents of Ukraine have been facing “complex trauma” since Vladimir Putin’s army invaded the nation on February 24, 2022. The combination of disruptions — fear of loss of life, grief isolation, displacement, etc. — serve to amplify the risk of both physical and mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Prof. Jawaid and his colleagues said: “When these traumas occur in combination, the effect is amplified and the signatures of trauma may even appear in the germline.”
The germline is the population of an organisms’ cells which pass their genetic material down the line to their offspring.
The researchers pointed to previous studies involving the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants which have concluded that trauma can be passed down the generations by a combination of biological and psychosocial mechanisms.
They said: “Despite fundamental differences between the war in Ukraine and the Holocaust, some principles of the intergenerational transmission of war trauma may still be pertinent.”
According to the researchers, it is important to note that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has re-exposed the country’s residents to the traumatic stimulus of Russian aggression that was previously the source of distress and fear during the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
They said: “Hence, the current trauma may even have a stronger impact due to altered stress signalling pathways among those who were previously affected.”
“It has previously been shown that individuals who are exposed to violence during childhood are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder upon subsequent trauma in adulthood.
“This could potentially be related to epigenetic alterations in the molecular cascades that are involved in stress reactivity.”
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The researchers also noted that the war against Ukraine may have mental health impacts outside of the Ukrainian population — and even impact Russian citizens.
They said: “Several Russian individuals and news outlets who have voiced their condemnation of the attack have been suppressed by detentions and other coercive actions by the Putin Administration.”
Alongside this, they added, “Scientific evidence from communities who faced oppression by the Iraqi Ba’ath regime suggests that living under totalitarian regimes is itself a notable risk factor for psychiatric morbidity.”
Depression may also be induced in populations elsewhere, Prof. Jawaid cautioned, as prolonged exposure to the kind of feelings of helplessness many have reported in the face of reports of the conflict serve as a major risk factor for depression.
In addition, such may compound the psychological disturbances generated by the coronavirus pandemic, the impacts of which are still being felt.
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Prof. Jawaid and his colleagues concluded: “Cumulatively, we fear that a large-scale mental health crisis is impending.
“Targeted investigations and preparatory measures should be implemented by health-care systems and relief organisations to provide mental health support to vulnerable populations without further delay.
“At a global scale, media and social media campaigns to raise awareness about the mental health consequences of war, and funding to make psychological first-aid self-care courses freely available, could be helpful.”
The full letter was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.