As much as I wanted to do this when the Russian-Ukrainian war first broke out, I needed time to understand, learn and know my own feelings about the war. I have firmly stood with Ukraine and now I want to understand how all the young Ukrainians and Russians going to war for the first time will be affected. This will be a very eye-opening episode for sure!
This developmental psychology episode has been sponsored by Developmental Psychology: A Guide To Developmental And Child Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
What Happens When Young People Go To War?
The first set of images out of the war I remember seeing where a group of young Ukrainian men who were preparing to go to war for the first time with only a few days of combat training. As a person I felt sorry for them that they have to go and fight for the first time without proper training but as a psychology student I was rather interested in their behaviour.
Interestingly we can actually learn a lot from the first sets of photos released. I’m talking about photos released by people like Jeremy Bowen’s report from BBC News on the 4th March 2022.
Since they showed the young people’s (basically teenagers) first concern were the daunting cameras and this is to be expected because they would be struggling with that teen “looking-glass self” and appearance anxiety. Basically this is the first time they would have been on camera, and they were being thrusted into a warzone.
After the photos were taken the young people were taken on a bus with other volunteers were slogans and shouted different noble and heroic sounding things. All because ten days ago they didn’t know they would be fighting in a war that is arguably the worse in Europe since World war two.
The Psychology behind Young People In The Russian-Ukraine War
No one likes to think of young people engaging in combat whatsoever. We only need to remember all of our own shook at learning in World War I tons of young people lied about their age just so they could serve in the military and fight in The Great War. And yes there was the whole it is right and proper to die for your country rubbish. But the point is still the same.
No one likes to think of young people going into wars.
Since people believe is a sign of a betrayal of humanity and we think of child soldiers that have been brutalised and brutally shaped by the warlords rather than loving families.
Thankfully (I think), these Ukrainian soldiers setting off for war are not as damaged as child soldiers and in all the images showed the preservation of their healthy humanity is so unsettling. Since these are perfectly normal, happy young people that are sent off.
That is not normal in the world we live in.
So that makes it rather unsettling.
However… the problem is psychologists, mental health experts and other people all around the world know that in three weeks (less now) these young people will never be the same again.
And that is heart-breaking.
Young People, Military and Developmental Psychology
All soldiers that fight in combat are very high risk in terms of mental health but research shows that soldiers under the age of 25 are particularly vulnerable to mental health conditions. As well as teenagers are seven times more likely than adult soldiers to experience Post-traumatic stress disorder, this is where the experiences of threat and their own helplessness remain raw and immediate, leaving them constantly on high alert. Also every sound or smell or movement signals they’re in mortal danger, and they respond accordingly even in peacetime. These
responses are often inappropriate and destructive.
This is simply awful and this is why psychologists will be even more critical in the future.
In terms of developmental psychology, from the age of 12 to 24, the human brain undergoes rapid changes where it grows new connections that shape our behavioural patterns and skill development and expectation. Thankfully (probably more in peacetime), the human brain is very adaptable in adolescence because each generation needs to navigate its own special habitat due to our constantly changing environment.
Returning to military psychology, all combat soldiers will learn skills and coping mechanisms that do tend to serve them very well in wartime. But these skills and mechanisms nearly always fail them afterwards and it leaves them awfully unequipped in peacetime and decisions in combat need to be made quickly as they are often the difference between life and death.
Therefore, the brain shuts down reflection, drastically limits a person’s empathy and ignores our individual emotions like fear as well as our needs. Like, our human needs for creature comforts, warmth, security amongst others.
This is all how the brain helps us to survive.
In normal situations with normal soldiers then once out of combat soldiers have a very good chance at switching back to peacetime patterns of behaviour.
But what about 18-year-old soldiers?
This is where the rather heartbreaking truth of the war comes in. Because these soldiers are been teenagers in developmental terms their brains will still be forming new neural connections to help them adapt to combat, but other neural connections that are not being used in these terrible environments will be “pruned” away.
Remember during this developmental stage of brain development the brain always prunes itself to help make it as effective as possible.
However, in this case this is not ideal. Especially if these lost connections would be useful in peacetime but they pruned away because the young person needs to adapt for wartime during this critical period.
Without further research we will not know, but I seriously hope the paragraph above is flat out wrong.
We’ve touched on neuropsychology, neuroscience and developmental psychology so we might as well see what clinical psychology has to offer. And I mean that light-heartedly because I think this only highlights the scale of the problem because when you need to touch on so many different fields that highlight the wide range of damage war causes.
As a result because of young people’s vulnerabilities to mental health conditions, psychologists have thankfully been campaigning for more careful assessments so only those who are mentally resilient enough can be allowed to fight.
But this is just ideal.
There is no choice in this war.
When you have a former superpower who were throwing so much at a smaller, weaker country. Ukraine has no choice but to allow every single person who is willing to fight to take up arms.
After all, this is not a little battle for some territory. This war is a fight for a country’s right to exist.
So this assessment and screening idea is just that.
And to be honest, I could continue in this podcast episode to talk about the tragedy of these young people who have minimal training and training that is nowhere need as sufficient as these young people need. And will be fighting young Russian men who are almost the same as them.
But I will not because I believe we have all learnt enough about What Happens When Young People Go To War.
The final thing I will say is this, whether you are a psychology student or psychology professional, we will have acknowledged the challenge this war represents to everyone’s mental health but especially these young people. And we must be ready to answer their call
when they admit they are struggling and need our team.
It is not the only thing the psychology community around the world should do because it is our job, but because it is the right thing to do.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Developmental Psychology: A Guide To Developmental And Child Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Neuroscience, Neuropsychology and Developmental Psychology Reference:
Resul Cesur, Joseph J. Sabia & Erdal Tekin (April 2011) The Psychological Costs of War: Military Combat and Mental Health Discussion Paper No. 5615. IZA.
Bruce Dohrenwend, Thomas Yager, Melanie Wall, et.al. (July 2013) The Roles of Combat Exposure,
Personal Vulnerability, and Involvement in Harm to Civilians or Prisoners in Vietnam-War-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science: 1(3): 223-238.
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