When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, people began fleeing the country in hopes of escaping the violence. As cities and communities across the country were attacked by Russian forces, countries began opening their borders to refugees.
However, reports began to emerge showing the racist treatment of people of colour trying to escape. African immigrants trying to leave reported anti-Black treatment while being denied boarding on trains, three Indian people who crossed the border into Poland were attacked and a number of racialized refugees claimed they were passed over for food and entry in favour of white Ukrainians.
The anxiety and anguish of war affects everyone and turns worlds upside down. Having your home become unsafe, being separated from family and friends and fearfully witnessing violence is traumatic for any human being. But BIPOC people have to contend with those feelings and experiences on top of dealing with the stressor and oppressor that is racism, which adds another ugly layer to an already traumatic ordeal.
We spoke with registered psychotherapist Avni Jain, who works to cultivate resilience for her clients. Based on her personal experience and that of her clients, Jain helps break down how BIPOC people can cope during times of conflict, the importance of moving stress through our bodies and how we can affirm the mental health needs of those who are suffering.
Recognizing the impact of racism during times of conflict
Jain says that trauma alone is incredibly heartbreaking, especially in times of war. However, she notes that for BIPOC folks, there is the added element of racial trauma on top of trauma. “That has a compounded impact on our mental health, right?” she says. “So that in itself creates the impact of trauma even more, [it’s] more vulnerable, more fragile, more devastating and has [a] long-lasting impact as well.”
Jain notes that it’s important to acknowledge the weight of this trauma and the heaviness of what is happening. “For us individually, what I think about it, I think it’s important for me to hold all these numbers of factors together at the same time, acknowledging that this is a heartbreaking situation of what’s happening over in Ukraine and many other countries currently who are also at war,” she says.
Acknowledging that this trauma affects people of colour differently is essential. “There [are] nuances to this trauma and how they’re experiencing it, right?” she says. “I mean, if you think about [Canada] as a whole, a lot of our population is made up of immigrants and refugees, which means that individuals have also fled countries of war over the last year, or many years or couple of decades.” Because this is incredibly triggering for a number of people, Jain says that it’s important to have safe spaces where we can share and understand those nuances and empathize.
How BIPOC people can protect their mental health
Jain says that knowing you’re not alone is really important. “If you can reach out to others who are also maybe experiencing similar feelings or experiences can be really powerful as well,” she adds. “Whether that’s a support group or whether that’s reaching out to your close friends and family to know that this is not an isolated experience and that you’re not alone and kind of experiencing that.”
With the ubiquity of social media, and the information being spread online through different platforms, it may be easy to doomscroll, develop headline fatigue or start thinking catastrophically. Jain notes that it’s important to take breaks from the news while also getting our information from credible sources.
“It’s important that we take breaks, we take time for rest, we stay connected socially,” she says. “It’s easy for us to isolate and kind of sit alone [in this] and that can be very debilitating to us and not supportive at all. And so it’s important that we also stay connected with our loved ones.”
As for catastrophic thinking, while Jain explains that it’s easy to jump to the worst-case scenario, especially since we’ve been doing so throughout the pandemic, we should remember to take things one day at a time.
Dealing with stress vs. dealing with stressors
“Sometimes there’s not a lot we can do with our stressors, because it’s not easy to walk away from our stressors,” Jain says. We can’t just shut off from the world, and stressors can be pervasive. However, when we don’t have control over mitigating our stressors or eliminating them, Jain says we need to focus on what we do have control over and how we can make sure stress doesn’t get trapped in our bodies.
This involves allowing our bodies to go through the stress response cycle, and according to Jain, evidence-based strategies show that movement is the number-one most efficient way. Some ways to do this include:
- Try progressive muscle relaxation.
- Go outside. Take a walk or a run outdoors.
- Do a workout.
- Breathe. “It helps regulate our neurological system to able to breathe and [take] slow, deep breaths, even pausing when our belly kind of constricts,” she says.
- Have positive social interactions. This could include anything from a casual conversation with colleagues to catching up with roommates or friends.
- Laugh. Laughter can also be really helpful to move stress through our bodies.
- Connect with affection. “Whether that’s with a safe partner or children [or]someone we care about, studies have shown a six-second kiss or a 20-second hug or petting a furry animal, these are all ways that when we connect with affection, can also support our nervous system.”
- Cry. “We know that when we cry or have a good cry, somehow we come out of that crying with some sort of relief,” Jain says. “And we also know that we haven’t necessarily combated the stress of what’s in our environment, but we’ve actually moved the stress through our body and completed the cycle.”
- Express yourself with creativity. Whether you enjoy storytelling or creating art, whatever form of creative expression you enjoy can be supportive.
How people can show support for those struggling with their mental health
As simple as it sounds, it’s important to affirm what BIPOC people are experiencing. Jain explains that it’s “completely normal to feel a little bit lost or feel out of control to not know where to invest your energy, to feel a deep pain.” Recognize and acknowledge that they are having these feelings.