Ukraine’s war and international isolation fuel Russia’s mental health ‘crisis’

Boris began taking antidepressants for the first time in his life in late February, shortly after Russian tanks broke through the Ukrainian border.

The 33-year-old chief engineer of a Moscow construction company had weathered a major mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic without seeing a doctor or taking any pills, but this time he found he couldn’t cope on his own. .

“As soon as the war started, I realized that my family would have to emigrate and that we would face a lot of struggles,” said Boris, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“If I had tried to solve everything without taking care of myself, it would have ended badly.”

The war in Ukraine and a “partial” mobilization campaign announced in the fall by Russian authorities have exacerbated an emerging mental health crisis, according to mental health experts, patients and experts who spoke to The Moscow Times.

At the same time, Russia has faced widespread war-related drug shortages, forcing people to go to great lengths to get the medicines they need.

While there is no official data on depression rates, a survey conducted by Moscow’s Sechenov University earlier this year He suggested one in three Russians felt depressed or anxious, due to the same level as 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

In addition, Russians bought 50% more antidepressants in the first nine months of this year compared to the same period in 2021, according to data from a digital labeling agency. reported earlier this year by the state news agency TASS.

“For some people, the mobilization was so shocking that it significantly changed their mood. Many experienced strong feelings of fear along with feelings of unreality about what was happening,” said clinical psychologist Galina Laysheva.

A pharmacy in Moscow.  Moskva news agency

A pharmacy in Moscow.
Moskva news agency

While these acute reactions don’t last long, Laysheva noted, they’re often replaced by long-term conditions, such as chronic anxiety and depression.

Marketing specialist Polina, 35, who requested anonymity to speak about her mental health, told The Moscow Times that she sought medical help in October and was prescribed Cipralex in combination with Xanax to help manage anxiety and seizures. panic.

“My social bubble is pretty homogeneous: everyone is against the war and everyone is terrified,” he said, adding that he knows many others who started taking antidepressants this year.

The feeling of living in a state of limbo is one of the most common problems for which Russians seek help from therapists, according to psychologists and mental health organizations. aforementioned by the Russian media outlet RBC last month.

Often, spikes in depression rates seem to correlate with dramatic events in the course of the conflict.

For example, the Russians spent four times the normal amount on antidepressants immediately after the February invasion and the demand for psychological help services spiked after the announcement of “partial” mobilization in September.

Laysheva said the typical problems were high levels of anxiety, moodiness, sleep disturbances, apathy and difficulty concentrating, as well as decreased physical and social activity.

Before the war, a long-standing lack of public funding for mental health services and a broader stigma meant that many Russians, especially outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, did not seek help for problems like these.

However, at the same time that rates of depression rose, many Russians found it increasingly difficult to obtain the medications they needed.

The shortages have been caused by supply chain and logistical problems during the war, international sanctions and the exit of major Western pharmaceutical companies from the Russian market.

In October, supplies of the antidepressant Zoloft (Sertraline) to Russia were suspended, with the local branch of the multinational Pfizer claiming the suspension was due to “technical problems”. Russian authorities said the reason was excessive demand.

Other popular antidepressants, such as Anafranil (Clomipramine), Velaxin (Venlafaxine), Ixel (Milnacipran), have also been hard to find.

“Three of my medications have disappeared [from pharmacies] in all regions of Russia: Anafranil, Ixel and the neuroleptic Quentiax,” said Yevgeniya, 42, a Moscow businesswoman who requested anonymity to discuss her medical condition. She has been taking these medications for the past 11 years.

Desperate to secure access to the medicines she needed, Yevgeniya found a man via Telegram. to chat that he had a guaranteed supply of Anafranil that he was willing to resell.

However, on one occasion, Yevgeniya did not go online for two days and the man sold the new batch of Anafranil to someone else.

Moscow, Russia.  Sergei Kiselev / Moskva News Agency

Moscow, Russia.
Sergei Kiselev / Moskva News Agency

“I threw myself at his feet (virtually, of course). Finally he gave me two blister packs. It was not enough. I had to reduce my daily dose and it made me feel bad,” she said.

Another option is to buy antidepressants abroad, particularly in Turkey, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, where they can be purchased without a prescription and are often much cheaper.

“Three different people have brought me Anafranil SR [from abroad] in recent months,” said journalist Daria Shipacheva, who lives in Moscow and suffers from clinical depression.

Recently, Shipacheva said that she managed to find six packs of Anafranil SR in a Moscow pharmacy, although this will only last her for a month.

“I don’t know what I’ll do then. I live in limbo all the time,” she told The Moscow Times.

Few expect depression rates to ease as fighting continues in Ukraine, while another round of mobilization could further worsen the nation’s mental health.

The engineer Boris, who first started taking antidepressants at the beginning of the war, finally left Russia in September, shortly after the start of the mobilization.

Among other things, he managed to bring a six-month supply of the antidepressant Fevarin (fluvoxamine) to his new home in Dushanbe, the Central Asian capital of Tajikistan.

“I would love to start therapy as well,” he said.

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