The effects of war on mental health: backed by science
Thousands of miles away from the conflict, you may be watching the war in Ukraine unfold in real time on a screen. The images of destruction, people in shelters, Ukrainian civilians bidding farewell and many other disturbing and tragic events are much to process.
Dubbed the first “social media war”, the events in Ukraine are being broadcast live not only by traditional media, but also on apps like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok at a rate never seen before. Violent images and videos are spreading like wildfire. Some videos tagged #UkraineWar have been viewed 600 million times in just a few days. These images, videos and audio clips can be triggers for anyone and have an immense psychological impact.
There have always been troubling global conflicts. Yet, with recent civil unrest in Syria, instability in Iraq, conflicts in other countries and the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion in Ukraine is another on the already long list of traumatic events that can affect negatively our mental health.
“The long-term effects of trauma are significant,” says Steve Sugden, MD, a colonel in the US Army Reserves and a psychiatrist at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI). Sugden knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the battlefield and is a medical expert on how trauma can affect our mental health. Sugden suggests that there are common mental health consequences of war and that those who watch traumatic content are also at risk.
“Civilians, soldiers, and those who consume war via social media can develop the typical psychological profile of trauma.”
Steve Sugden, MD, HMHI
How War Affects Our Mental Health
the World Health Organization (WHO) said that in situations of armed conflict, “About 10% of people who experience traumatic events will have serious mental health problems, and 10% will develop behavior that impairs their ability to function effectively.” Depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems such as insomnia are the most common effects. Sugden focuses on three populations at risk of experiencing negative mental health consequences:
- Civilians in the targeted homeland
- Soldiers on both sides of the conflict
- Those who consume the images, videos and audio of war through social media apps, TV, radio and the web
“Surprisingly, civilians involved in conflict tend to be the group that experiences the least psychological trauma, but it can still be significant,” Sugden says. Less trauma may be the result of civilians being able to speak immediately with their social network and process their emotions, which helps build resilience.
The long-term effects of trauma on soldiers are significant. “We’ve seen an increase in homelessness among the US veteran population, and this group has the highest suicide rate of any other population,” Sugden says. Soldiers around the world are able to be exposed to traumatic events, and this traumatic exposure leads to higher overall medical complications, dysfunction within families, unemployment, substance abuse, and more.
“But all three groups, including civilians, can develop the typical psychological profile of trauma. Equally important, all three groups can develop distrust, suspicion and a sense of hopelessness when it comes to a conflict near or far,” says Sugden. .
“Studies have shown that consumers of a war via television, social media or other forms of media can be just as impacted as the actual individuals involved in the conflict.”
The first “social media war”
According to Sugden, even before the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the negative impact of using social media was well documented. Countless studies show that increased device use affects school, relationships, work productivity, and can worsen mental health. Marketers and social media developers have tapped into the brain’s reward system, mimicking the dopamine effects commonly seen with many addictive substances. Sugden reminds us that as a society, we could all benefit from less screen time, but social media is ingrained in our daily behavior, and sometimes it can be hard to look away.
From a clinical perspective, in times of crisis, more and more people turn to electronic media as sources of information. Many people use social media to cope with stress or as a distraction. Watching events across Ukraine and the rest of the world unfold on a screen allows them to empathize with those affected and can educate, inform and inspire people to help. But increased screen time and oversaturation of traumatic content can also come at a cost.
“An interesting correlation is 9/11. It was the first televised disaster. Studies found that those who watched the event on television were just as likely, if not more so, to develop trauma-like symptoms than those living in New York City at the time,” says Sugden.
How to Set Social Media Boundaries for Your Mental Health
Turning off screens or limiting viewing time for Ukraine-related content can be helpful for anyone, but it’s not a realistic option for some. Social media algorithms are deliberately designed to be addictive; however, it is possible to stay informed without your social apps constantly updating. Sugden suggests some of the following to implement healthy social media boundaries related to global conflicts:
- Add a time limit in your device settings. Avoid watching content before bed or right after waking up, not only because the blue light from your device can be harmful, but also because watching disturbing images and videos can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety, keeping you awake or cause anxiety that can last all day.
- Make sure the content you view or plan to share is correct and not misleading or inaccurate.
- Take stock of your feelings and if you start to feel anxious, take a step back and turn off your phone or computer.
- Avoid doom scrolling and focus on finding content that doesn’t stress you out.
As the war in Ukraine continues, rather than watching it unfold on social media, staying engaged by supporting crisis-related efforts can give your sanity a boost. There are many actions to take – donating to causes that support people in Ukraine or organizing a local effort to help families with ties to Ukraine can be a positive alternative to the scroll of fate. Now is the time to take stock of your mental well-being, take a break from social media, look for ways to help, and find any emotional support you may need.