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EU grant to improve mental well-being of Ukrainian refugees

6 February 2023
An international group of researchers led by Els van der Ven, Marit Sijbrandij and Iryna Frankova of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) received 700,000 euro from the EU to implement psychological interventions adapted to the needs of Ukrainian refugees.

These interventions, the majority developed by the WHO, are evidence based and have a relatively large reach due to the involvement of peer refugee helpers. The project called U-RISE is coordinated by the VU and includes collaborations with various partners such as ARQ national psychotrauma center and three NGOs in Romania, Poland and Slovakia, that lead the implementation locally.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, millions of people have fled the country. The exposure to the war leads to a high risk of developing mental health problems among refugees and puts a high strain on the health care system of host countries. Van der Ven: "With this grant, we can bring together researchers and other stakeholders at an international level to better organize care for this vulnerable group. We have had a kick-off meeting at the VU with partners from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Italy, the Netherlands and the EU project leader who was visiting from Brussels."

European network of mental health professionals
U-RISE's objectives are to mobilize and strengthen a European network of Ukrainian and Russian-speaking mental health professionals to exchange guidelines, experiences and knowledge and to promote collaboration with international organizations, NGOs and other stakeholders. U-RISE will use various face-to-face and digital psychological interventions to support refugees from Ukraine. Digital interventions include a health app and a chatbot that is now used by 50,000 Ukrainians. In the chatbot, people receive daily supportive messages and can start a conversation with the chatbot. The nature of the messages is based on Psychological First Aid, an evidence-based intervention often used in crisis situations.

In addition, individual and group WHO interventions will be implemented in Slovakia, Poland and Romania. An example is Problem Management Plus, a low-intensity intervention that is suitable for people with anxiety or depressive symptoms and consists of psychoeducation and stress management. Van der Ven: "These countries receive high volumes of refugees from Ukraine, but there is a shortage of psychologists and other trained staff. We will scale up mental health care by training psychologists and fellow refugees in providing effective WHO interventions."

"Another important part is the distribution of training materials adapted to the local context and healthcare systems, to provide the necessary local conditions for implementation and upscaling. Through networking activities, we will create a roadmap of available mental health services to accelerate the pathway to appropriate care for people in need of intensive mental health care," says Van der Ven.

On February 13, the first U-RISE webinar will take place with the subject "Problem Management Plus for Ukrainians in Poland, Romania & Solvakia".

More information about the project and the VU researchers
Els van der Ven
Marit Sijbrandij
Irina Frankova
Anke Witteveen