Over the past 30 years, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of people, especially among those living along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“We live in an environment of constant risk”, explains Kristine Aydinyan, teacher at Aygepar. “I would often find bullets on our balcony, and when there were shots I would stuff cotton into my daughter’s ears so that she wouldn’t hear it. If shooting took place during school hours, we would take the children to an underground shelter. and play games and music for them. “
People have learned to live with the situation, without even considering whether it is normal. “Constant fear has become the norm for us,” says Liliana Makaryan, a teacher from Chinari.
This has led to an increasing prevalence of mental health problems, which have been exacerbated by ignorance, misperception and stigma. “There is also a lack of confidence in psychological services – most of which are only available in the capital Yerevan anyway,” explains Loussine Mkrttchian, an ICRC psychologist.
Mental health issues soared last year following the outbreak of violence that affected not only people living in border communities, but also in other parts of Armenia. “The short-term impact has been high levels of distress and strong fears among the affected population,” explains Sofia Gimenez Molinero, ICRC delegate for mental health and psychosocial support in Armenia.
“Since the fighting escalated last year, we have found it difficult to adapt to the situation we find ourselves in,” said Hratsin Aperyan, a teacher from Chinari.
We are caught in a whirlwind of emotions, fears and anxiety for children.
The escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has deprived large numbers of people of their property, but also of their relatives – many of whom are missing or have been detained. And thousands of displaced people came to Armenia. “I have worked with many displaced families,” says Susanna Barseghyan, a psychologist in the town of Kapan, in southern Armenia.
They had lost so much and were no longer interested in anything, and their children jumped at the slightest noise. They were so stressed that they thought no one could help them.
“Our town, Sisian, has the most casualties and the highest number of missing people in our entire region,” Gayane Grigoryan said. People show desperation, indifference, loneliness and even aggression, with cases of domestic violence in the community on the rise. Yet there are no locally available services that people can turn to for help with their mental health issues.
“The villagers here raised cattle but had to sell everything because the pastures are mined or present other risks,” says Anna Sargsyan, a teacher from the border community of Davit Bek. “They can’t farm, so they sold their farm equipment. Seven families have already left the village because of this. Other families moved due to the growing anxiety of their children, some of whom began to stutter, sleep poorly, or were easily surprised. “Look at my daughter,” says Anna.
She kept telling me that she didn’t want to hear the windows click, because she knew what could happen next.
“We now live so close to the border that we are exposed to the risks of the nearby roadblock,” says Anna Mnatsakyanyan.
And we are afraid to go into the woods, because there may be explosive remnants. We live in constant fear for our children and our families.
Life is quite stressful for Julieta Barseghyan, who has three sons who serve in the military.
You hear a sound and call your neighbors to see what happened. You constantly think that war is going to break out again. You hear news of someone’s cow exploding on a landmine, near your own land.
The situation seems more stable now, but mental health issues have not gone away – and more and more people are recognizing the need to address them. “There has been a change,” says Loussine, an ICRC psychologist.
People are overwhelmed and many of them admit that there are issues that need to be dealt with by specialists.
The ICRC is tackling mental health and psychosocial problems in Armenia through two projects: Help the Helpers and Victims of Violence. The Help the Helpers project trains staff from the Republican Psychological and Pedagogical Center (RPPC), who in turn train teachers in border communities. Over the course of several sessions, teachers learn to tap into personal and external resources to better cope with conflict stressors. This way they can support their students and the community at large. “The beauty and power of the Help the Helpers approach is that it takes participants very discreetly from where they are and helps them move forward with gradual but tangible changes in their self-confidence. and their way of thinking, ”explains Loussine.
The idea is to challenge the participants, so that they find their own strength and inner potential.
For those who attended the ICRC-led sessions, the whole experience turned out to be a journey of acceptance and transformation. That said, the struggle to break down stigma in conflict-affected communities in the Syunik and Tavush regions continues.
“At first, teachers laughed at difficult situations. When they spoke of children caught in bombings or accidentally entered a minefield, for example, they were making jokes, ”explains Lusine Hakobyan, a psychologist from the RPPC. “It was such an inappropriate response to these situations, but it was their way of coping. After a few meetings, the teachers started expressing their emotions differently when they discussed the same scenarios. They became emotional, as more appropriate mechanisms were being put in place. “
“Our approach now is to try to help without causing harm,” says Susanna, the Kapan City psychologist.
We want people to understand that life goes on and that there is no bad life, just bad days. We want them to know that they are not alone and that there are people ready to support them.
“Thanks to this training, we have become stronger and have helped strengthen teachers,” adds Gayane Harutyunyan of the RPPC.
By changing ourselves, we were able to change them. We have given them the tools they need to overcome their difficulties, and we have already seen the effectiveness of our efforts.
Here is what some teachers have to say about their experience with the Help the Helpers project:
Our encounters with the ICRC psychologist overwhelmed me and helped me reduce stress, control my thoughts and focus on the positive. The breathing exercises were particularly helpful. We also learned to spot the telltale signs in our students and their parents, and to work with them.
During sessions led by the ICRC, we learned relaxation techniques to reduce stress. We can now pass these skills on to our students. We teach them breathing exercises, and we calm down together when we are in a shelter.
I have noticed changes in myself and I feel more confident in helping children and teens. From now on, I will take a more skills-based approach to dealing with stress, based on the information I learned in the workshop. I feel fully recharged and revitalized, with a positive mindset and thoughts.
What we knew about stress before was quite inconsistent and fragmented. Now he has structure and form – and that’s very motivating.
The ICRC’s other mental health initiative in Armenia – the Victims of Violence project – aims to establish basic psychological services at community level. “Our aim is to improve the resilience of communities affected by the conflict and to build a support system,” explains Sofia, ICRC delegate for mental health in Armenia. Armenian Red Cross Society (ARCS) volunteers are trained to identify mental health issues such as grief, depression, anxiety and stress, and then to provide basic psychological support. They work with those affected by the recent escalation of hostilities, including those who have been displaced and the families of those who are sick or missing or who have been detained. “For us, it is important to get the message across that after having lived through a conflict, it is normal to suffer and to have difficulty getting out of it,” explains Sofia.
“We provide basic psychological support mainly to those who have been affected by the upsurge in fighting over the past year,” said Svetlana Ananyan of ARCS. “These are families who have lost loved ones or been displaced, or whose relatives are missing or detained. Through the efforts of our volunteers, we try to be accessible throughout the Tavush area. We also organize awareness sessions to encourage people to recognize the role played by mental health problems.
“If there had been psychological services in the 1990s, surely people would have used them. But since there were no such services, people just learned to live with mental health issues, ”says Anna Ananyan, an ARCS volunteer. “Following the hostilities of last fall, the perception of mental health is gradually changing. I met someone who took part in the fighting. It’s very difficult to work with him, but I’m already seeing positive change. Her life seems to be getting back to normal. “
Gayane Grigoryan, another ARCS volunteer, sees ICRC-led training sessions as a form of group therapy. “After a few meetings, I was recharged and ready to get my life back on track,” she says.
We were comfortable expressing our emotions and felt no feelings of shame towards anyone. Being aware of mental health issues has helped me build my resilience to stress.