Having gotten to know Ukrainians as a seminarian in the mid-2000s, 17 years later, in late February of 2022, when war broke out in Ukraine, Robert Armano, an American psychotherapist, did not hesitate for a moment – he needs to go to Ukraine and help those with trauma! “There wasn't a doubt in my mind that this was a calling, and one that I needed to follow. This strong pull to go to Ukraine also came with a strong sense of peace, and so I knew it was the right thing for me to do,” R. Armano told The Baltic Times Magazine.
How did you end up being in Ukraine? What motivated you to go there?
I currently work as a trauma trained psychotherapist in the United States, but prior to changing careers, I had discerned a possible call to the priesthood at a Roman Catholic Seminary outside of New York City, where I grew up. The Church partnered with a local Ukrainian Seminary at the time, where I was able to take some of my required Philosophy classes. I got to know many of the Ukrainian Seminarians there well, and I felt like their culture and values closely matched my own as an Italian-American.
It wasn't difficult to find many things in common, and thus nurture those friendships throughout my time in the seminary until this present day. When the war broke out in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, I immediately thought of my friends who had become priests and were serving in Ukraine. I reached out and told them that I wanted to help.
Coincidentally, one of my patients at the time had ties to an American NGO (non-government organization) that was helping to raise money and collect non-lethal aid for distribution to soldiers in Ukraine. I was put in contact with them and invited to provide assistance as a mental healthcare worker working for a nonprofit, Ukrainian based, recognized charitable organization that served soldiers coming off of the front lines who had experienced both physical and psychological trauma. When I heard about this possibility to serve, and was given the opportunity to go, there wasn't a doubt in my mind that this was a calling, and one that I needed to follow.
This strong pull to go to Ukraine also came with a strong sense of peace, and so I knew it was the right thing for me to do.
What had you heard about the situation of mental care in the country before the trip?
Ukraine declared its independence in August of 1991, and 32 years may seem like a long time to bring modern Psychological Education and Practice to a country, but it's never quite that easy. I had heard they were behind the United States and Europe in terms of acceptance of, and implementation of modern psychological practice, but I didn't know how far behind until I had boots on the ground there myself.
What were some of the most dramatic and memorable experiences you had in Ukraine while helping the Ukrainians to cope with their trauma? What kind of trauma are prevalent?
In terms of memorable experiences, there were many. I won't separate them into good or bad occurrences here; I would identify them more as many learning and teachable moments, that touched both my heart and soul at a very deep level. I met so many motivated and resilient Ukrainian people that refused to be put down under any circumstances. This impressed me the most about the Ukrainians; their unwavering attitude that we are all in this together; losing is not an option; and victory is close at hand. I often wished while I was there, that more Americans had exposure to Ukraine and their people, so they could understand what their suffering looks like, and count the blessings of living in a country that is free, and not at war. Hands down some of the most traumatic experiences were hearing the air-raid sirens going off all hours of the day and night, seeing the drones being shot down by antimissile defence systems, and seeing mothers and children running to the shelters alongside me.
In the beginning I would almost always go down into the subway to seek shelter, but I often noticed that a lot of Ukrainian people were not fazed by this, and they went on with their days as usual. Only later did I understand this was an act of defiance toward Russia, and, for them, necessary for survival, sanity and a semblance of a normal life, which they are very eager to have once again in the very near future. I would say the prevalent traumas are related to the atrocities seen on the battlefield, and they cover both the military and civilian population; old and young, it makes no difference.
The unofficial definition of trauma is your body responding naturally to an unnatural act, one that you are not supposed to ever hear or see in your lifetime, but you have, and now you have to manage a barrage of thoughts and emotions, and many people just don't know what to do with that. I found many people minimizing their pain and trauma. I finally accepted that avoidance was keeping some alert and alive, and, yes, some people were going to think this was all just psychobabble.
Did you make it to the front lines? What did your daily routine look like?
I did not make it to the front lines, as it was deemed to be too dangerous, and I was strongly advised against doing so by the NGO that was sponsoring me at that time. My daily routine consisted of waking up and working with local Ukrainian healthcare workers and training them in the best practices and modalities for trauma treatment, and I had also emphasized to them before I left, that there would have to be an aftercare plan for these men and women, or their traumatic injuries can certainly lead to increased levels of depression, suicidality, among many other things. My evenings in Ukraine into the wee hours of the morning were spent working with my own patients back home in the USA using my iPad and a Star Link, courtesy of Elon Musk.
How do you describe Ukraine’s resources in providing mental care for the traumatized? What does it lack most?
I found their psychological practices there to be dated; maybe 20 years behind the USA and Europe. They did have trauma informed psychotherapists that knew their stuff, but it seemed like the modern schools of thought were harder there to adapt. Also, there is a far greater number of people in need in Ukraine vs. the number of providers licensed to provide these services. And, quite frankly, there seemed to still be a lot of stigma, associated with this type of healthcare, which I found to be very sad. I left Ukraine feeling that a lot of people would be suffering in silence during the years to come either because they've never spoken to anyone about this pain, or that they should somehow be able to handle it themselves.
As an ex-seminarian, did you sometimes feel like combining psychotherapy with a spiritual guidance when helping the Ukrainians?
Yes, absolutely, my psychotherapy practice and delivery are always going to be based in logic, psychology, and spirituality. I use a humanistic and integrated body/mind/ spirit evidenced based approach to treatment, keeping it patient cantered. Being open to this in Ukraine is key, because they won't always get the idea that it is heathier to communicate about all the parts that make us human beings; and not just select to deal with certain things and not others.
Keeping yourself compartmentalized and not addressing trauma, and refusing to seek some sort of greater understanding with a Higher Power, will almost always guarantee some sort of existential crisis later in life. We can practice avoidance and kick the proverbial can down the road, but eventually it will find us, and so we have to deal with life on life's terms, and not on our own.
What would be your advice to other mental care professionals considering travelling to Ukraine and helping Ukrainians?
It's important to be sponsored by a tried and proven NGO that is endorsed by the Ukrainian government. They are still dealing with a lot of fraud and corruption there, or so I was told, and so it makes sense to do your homework before you get on a plane from anywhere, and then hop on a train from either Poland or Romania to actually cross the border into Ukraine.
Are you planning to come back?
Yes, absolutely. I've participated in extensive life coaching training since my trip, and I think it may be easier for someone to work with a coach than a psychotherapist, especially in places where seeing someone for your mental health is still stigmatized. The combination of training in psychology, life coaching, trauma, substance misuse, etc., will really help me to help more people when I get back to Ukraine, probably in the first quarter or 2024.
I'm looking forward to teaching, but also being taught by the many Ukrainian people who are so happy to share their stories, even very sad ones.
If you want more information on psychotherapy services, life coaching, or anything else I have written about above, I can be reached at: +1 203 654 9094 or at: https://www.robromano.com
Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava!