With an eye to helping children forced to flee the war in Ukraine, Western’s Claire Crooks was recently in the Czech Republic training social workers and psychologists in STRONG, a school-based mental health program.
Since February, an estimated 130,000 school-age children have entered the Czech Republic from Ukraine suffering from varying degrees of psychological distress due to the Russian invasion of their country.
Crooks, director of Western’s Centre for School Mental Health (CSMH), along with Sharon Hoover of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Dr. Jeff Bostic from Georgetown University, shared details of the Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups (STRONG) program with 34 professionals engaged in helping traumatized children and teens. The trainees in turn will teach the program to their colleagues in schools and community groups.
It is hoped STRONG will also be used in Ukraine to help students who have been internally displaced by the conflict. Among the mental-health workers who participated in the training were 10 psychologists from Ukraine.
The mental health effects of war can lead to difficulties with school attendance, learning and social adjustment, said Crooks, who is also a professor in the Faculty of Education.
“When kids are experiencing a lot of distress, they can’t learn optimally. In helping develop their coping skills and resilience – and even their friendship skills – they’re actually going to do better in school.”
The training visit was at the invitation of ČOSIV, the Czech Society for Inclusive Education.
It is not typical for groups of professionals to be trained in such a short time period (a few days), she added, but it’s essential that support gets to Ukrainian youngsters as soon as possible.
Crooks and her CSMH team have been working with School Mental Health Ontario and other U.S. and Ontario colleagues since 2017 to roll out the STRONG program in the province’s schools.
During that time the program has expanded to include community organizations supporting newcomer youth.
That adaptability strengthens the program’s chances of reaching a lot of Ukrainian children and teens affected by the war, said Crooks.
“Fifty-seven thousand Ukrainians are entering Czech school systems, and thousands more who aren’t in schools still need support,” she said. “One-on-one mental health care isn’t an option, and these mental health teams are looking for some way to provide support to huge numbers of children.”
STRONG works from a strengths-based perspective to help kids cope with stress while building problem-solving and goal-setting skills.
Young newcomers are taught how to reframe their view of themselves to be more positive while also learning how trauma affects their bodies and minds. They learn mindfulness practices to help ground themselves when feeling distressed. They also create a narrative of their journey, a storytelling strategy that allows them to process and share their migration experiences.
“Fleeing war is not a usual human experience, to be ripped away from all you’ve known and be dropped somewhere else,” said Crooks. “So, helping children understand how they can process the feelings and reactions to their experiences is crucial to their ongoing development.”