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U.S. Ukrainian bishops call on Catholics to be direct agents of ‘God’s healing touch’ in Ukraine

A woman cries in front of an apartment building destroyed during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 19, 2022. The Ukrainian Catholic bishops of the U.S. in a pastoral letter June 14, 2023, called attention to the profound psychological consequences of Russia's war on Ukraine, urging the faithful to be God's agents of healing.(OSV News photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters)

(OSV News) — The Ukrainian Catholic bishops of the U.S. are calling attention to the profound psychological consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine, urging the faithful to “be the conduits that direct God’s healing touch to our suffering brothers and sisters.”

The bishops issued a June 14 pastoral letter on the trauma and mental health issues resulting from the full-scale war, which continues attacks launched by Russia in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the fostering of separatist factions in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The letter was signed by Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S.; Bishop Paul Chomnycky of the Eparchy of Stamford, Connecticut, and a Basilian; Bishop Venedykt Aleksiychuk of the Eparchy of St. Nicholas, Chicago; and Bishop Bohdan J. Danylo of the Eparchy of St. Josaphat in Parma, Ohio.

“The war in Ukraine continues to cause terrible suffering for countless individuals,” said the bishops. “We see the deep wounds caused by the war’s devastating destruction, maiming injury and innumerable deaths.”

Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there have been more than 24,000 civilian casualties, with close to 8,900 killed and over 15,000 injured, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Another 14 million have been displaced by Russia’s invasion, with 8 million driven from Ukraine and 6 million forced into other areas of the country.

With some 80,000 war crimes reported – including torture, rape, mutilation and summary executions — Ukraine has filed charges of genocide by Russia with the International Court of Justice.

Ukraine’s government has claimed approximately 19,500 Ukrainian children have been abducted by Russia.

Dozens of settlements have been swept away in massive flooding caused by the June 6 destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Kherson, with “the balance of evidence” pointing to Russia as the cause of the explosion, said the nonprofit Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington.

Amid the carnage and atrocities of war, “there is another kind of suffering that we tend not to discuss openly: the psychological traumas inflicted by the violence of war and mental health in general,” the bishops said, noting that “violence causes trauma and mental illness.”

The bishops pointed to an assessment by Dr. Hans Kluge, director of the World Health Organization’s regional office for Europe, who estimated “almost 10 million people” in Ukraine, including those in relatively safer areas of the country, are at risk of “acute stress, anxiety, depression, substance use, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

“Persons with mental illness often suffer in silence, hidden and unrecognized by others,” the bishops wrote. “Sometimes the psychological anguish is so great that depression sets in and even despair. A person’s anguish can become unbearable, to the point that they desire to die.”

The stress and trauma of forced displacement “are frequently overlooked and minimized,” said the bishops.

“Emigration radically changes everything: geography, language, culture, circle of friends, the way people interact with one another and often even one’s profession,” they said. “Sudden disruptions in social connections can isolate and amplify loneliness.”

Some who have managed to flee the war may experience “distorted feelings of guilt or shame for being alive and safe while others are dying in Ukraine,” the bishops said.

Displacement and post-migration stressors compound trauma particularly in children, they said, with research suggesting that “refugee children have much greater mental health needs compared to the general population.”

The bishops said that “very sadly, in recent months, Ukrainian communities in the (U.S.) have seen a number of suicides.”

Referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2282), the bishops emphasized the need “to properly understand the church’s teaching on suicide,” which “recognizes that ‘grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.'”

In addition, “those who lost a loved one to suicide need particular care and attention,” since “their grief is often complicated by confusion, anger and guilt,” said the bishops.

The bishops admitted that “there is no simple answer” to addressing the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of war.

At the same time, “our faith calls us to fellowship,” they said. “Our God calls us to communion. We need to find ways to share our plight with trusted individuals and engage in a supportive community where we can receive help.”

Recovery and healing are possible “when we can speak and feel really listened to,” they said. “Knowing that there is someone who cares can change the life of a person who is suffering.”

“Like the Good Samaritan in the Gospel, we must be attentive to the needs of others, listen and offer respect, consideration and love,” the bishops said. “Jesus’ ministry was one of hope and healing. In imitating Christ, we provide hope and healing to others.”

The bishops highlighted resources such as Help & Hope 4 Ukraine, Alliance of Hope for suicide survivors, and the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, a 24-hour confidential suicide prevention helpline offered by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

“Today, in a special way, we are called to live our resurrectional faith as we apply all the best practices of medicine and psychology,” said the bishops. “With God’s help, we will use these instruments and our new awareness to help each other.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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