A man standing outside a damaged school.
Stener Vogt, a child protection specialist at NORCAP outside school 14 in Bucha, June 2022. Photo: Stener Vogt/NORCAP

Ukrainian children at risk of long-term mental health problems

Bunny Nooryani|Published 24. Aug 2022
The war in Ukraine has exposed hundreds of thousands of children in the country to traumatic events that put them at risk of long-term mental health problems, making it imperative to take action, warns Stener Vogt, a child protection specialist at NORCAP, which is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“Most adults don’t know how to deal with the impact of war on children’s mental health,” says Vogt, who is on assignment in Kyiv, Ukraine. “We will see long-term mental health problems for the children of Ukraine if we don’t address this properly now.”

More than 13 million people in Ukraine have fled their homes because of fighting in the six months since the escalation of the war on February 24. Many are children who have been exposed to deeply traumatic events and urgently need safety, stability, child protection services and psychosocial support. While parents and other caretakers are crucial to a child’s welfare, they often lack a sufficient understanding of how to meet the needs of a child affected by war, says Vogt.

“Child protection is often perceived as the protection of small adults, but children’s needs differ from those of adults,” says Vogt, who coordinates child protection efforts by international aid agencies and local organisations in Ukraine, supporting the work of national authorities. “We are working to give parents and other caregivers a better understanding of these needs and how to deal with them.”

Keeping families together

A key focus for Vogt is to ensure children are not separated from their families.

“Many families are in a difficult situation with one parent in the army and the other needing to work and may see no other option than to place their children in an institution or in the care of someone else,” he says. “But we see that children who remain with their parents are more resilient, so we need to do even more to enable parents to keep their children with them.”

Children fleeing conflict are at significant risk of family separation, violence, abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking. The lack of an adequate system for registering children moving out of Ukraine increases these risks, says Vogt. 

School 14 in Bucha. Photo: Stener Vogt/NORCAP


Establishing safe spaces

About 7 million people are estimated to be internally displaced in Ukraine, while 6.7 million people are refugees in other countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In Ukraine, the authorities and humanitarian organisations have set up collection sites that provide displaced people with critical information and other support. In neighbouring countries, UNICEF and UNHCR have worked with authorities and other organisations to set up Blue Dots. These are safe spaces along border crossings that provide refugees with information and support, including advice, childcare and referrals for healthcare, education and psychosocial support. They also register unaccompanied children to facilitate monitoring of their protection and family reunification.

“We are working with the authorities to increase the number of collection sites within Ukraine and Blue Dots in neighbouring countries, but even more needs to be done to address the needs of children,” says Vogt.

Providing support

With expertise in the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding sectors, NORCAP works with local, national and international partners to meet the needs of people affected by crises. In response to the crisis in Ukraine, NORCAP has experts working with UN agencies, national authorities and local organisations in Ukraine and neighbouring countries on issues including child protection, anti-trafficking, the provision of shelter, education and cash assistance.

“No society is built for a crisis of this scale,” says Vogt. “So even though the Ukrainian authorities are doing their utmost, and sometimes more than can be expected, they urgently need assistance from the humanitarian community to help protect the most vulnerable.

“The authorities are really concerned about child protection: They know what they want, but don’t always have the resources or specialist experience. We do our best to support the government in filling these gaps.”