The Mental Health Effects of War: Backed by Science

Mar 28, 2022 9:00 AM


Thousands of miles away from the conflict, you may be watching the war in Ukraine unfold in real-time through a screen. The images of destruction, people in shelters, Ukrainian civilians saying their goodbyes, and many other disturbing and tragic events are a lot to process.

Dubbed the first "social media war," the events in Ukraine are being broadcast live not only through traditional news outlets but on apps like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok at a rate never seen before. Violent images and videos are spreading like wildfire. Some videos tagged with #UkraineWar have been seen 600 million times in just a few days. These images, videos, and audio clips can be triggering for everyone and have an immense psychological impact.

There have always been troublesome global conflicts. Still, with the 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 lengthy list of traumatic events that can negatively affect 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 Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI). Sugden knows first-hand what it is like to be on the battlefield and is a medical expert on how trauma can affect our mental health. Sugden suggests that there are some common mental health consequences of war and that those viewing traumatic content are also at risk.

"Civilians, soldiers, and those consuming the war through 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) has stated that in situations of armed conflict, "Around 10 percent of the people who experience traumatic events will have serious mental health problems, and another 10 percent will develop behavior that will hinder their ability to function effectively." Depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic problems such as insomnia are the most common effects. Sugden focuses on three populations susceptible to negative mental health consequences:

  • Civilians within the targeted homeland
  • The soldiers on both sides of the conflict
  • Those consuming the images, videos, and audio of the war through social media apps, television, radio, and the web

"Surprisingly, the civilians within the conflict tend to be the group with the least amount of psychological trauma—yet it still can be significant," says Sugden. Less trauma may be the result of civilians’ ability to talk immediately with their social network and process their emotions, which helps to build resilience.

The long-term effects of trauma on soldiers are significant. "We have seen increases in homelessness among the US veteran population, and this group has the highest suicide rate compared to any other population," says Sugden. Soldiers worldwide are in the position to be exposed to traumatic events, and with traumatic exposure comes higher overall medical complications, dysfunction within families, unemployment, substance use, and more.

"But all three groups, including civilians, can develop the typical psychological profile of trauma. Equally important, all three groups can develop mistrust, suspicion, and a sense of hopelessness when it comes to conflict close to home or far away," explains 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 within the conflict."

The First "Social Media War"

According to Sugden, even before the Ukraine conflict started, the negative impact of social media use was well documented. Countless studies show that increased use of a device affects school, relationships, work productivity and can worsen mental health. Social media marketers and 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 engrained in our everyday behavior, and at times, it can be hard to look away.

From a clinical perspective, when it comes to times of crisis, more people turn to electronic media as sources of information. Many individuals use social media to cope with stress or as a distraction. Watching the events across Ukraine and the rest of the world unfold on a screen allows them to empathize with those who are 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, to develop trauma-like symptoms than those who lived in New York City at the time," says Sugden.

How to Set Social Media Boundaries for your Mental Health

It can be useful for anyone to turn off screens or limit the time viewing content related to Ukraine, but this is not a realistic option for some. Social media algorithms are purposely built to be addictive; however, it is possible to stay informed without the constant refresh on your social apps. 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 looking at content before bed or right when you wake up, not only because the blue light from your device can be harmful but also because looking at disturbing images and videos can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety, keeping you awake or causing anxiety that can last all day.
  • Ensure the content you are viewing or considering sharing is correct and not misleading or inaccurate.
  • Take stock of your feelings and if you begin feeling anxious, take a step back and turn off your phone or computer.
  • Avoid “doom scrolling” and focus on finding the content that does not leave you feeling stressed out.

While the war in Ukraine continues, rather than watching it unfold on social media, staying engaged by supporting efforts related to the crisis can provide a boost to your mental health. There are many actions to take—donating to causes that support people in Ukraine or organizing a local effort to help families with Ukrainian ties may be a positive alternative to doom scrolling. Now is the time to take stock of your mental well-being, take a break from social media, seek out ways to help, and find the emotional support you may need.

mental health trauma social media war