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Displaced Ukrainian Families Learn 'Positive Psychology' From Yale Psychologist in the Austrian Alps

September 02, 2022

It only takes one candle to light a room.

In a small village in the Austrian Alps, surrounded by mothers, a grandmother, and children displaced from war-torn Ukraine, Amit Oren, PhD, was that candle.

Oren, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, traveled to Piesendorf, Austria in late July to create and implement a wellness retreat for Ukrainian families. The gathering was coordinated by Mountain Seed Foundation, a Virginia-based organization founded by an American veteran which works to heal children and families from war-torn countries like Ukraine.

The foundation’s organizers believe in the healing power of nature, and the 17 children in Oren’s retreat were challenged to a week of high-altitude mountain climbing on some of the world’s most beautiful peaks.

Oren, a clinical supervisor in the Yale Department of Psychiatry who has worked as a clinician and lecturer for four decades, kept her feet firmly planted on the ground during the gathering, which ran from Aug. 1-7.

While the children climbed, she taught the 12 mothers how to self-care during times of crisis and how to cope with long term uncertainty. She helped the women tune into their emotions and identify positive sensations despite the horrors they were experiencing.

“They needed permission to feel the good feelings,” said Oren, who noted that some of the women suffered what she calls “survivor guilt” after escaping Ukraine and needed “permission to flourish.”

“It’s not that they don’t know how. Under these extreme circumstances they just needed ‘permission’ to do it,” she said. “I say to my individual patients that suffering is overrated. Life hands us plenty. We don’t need to add to it. “

From the start, Oren decided that traditional treatment methods, those that tend to investigate what is wrong and then attempt to address it, were not appropriate. A week was too short a time to open the wounds and then attempt to close them. Rather, she decided to build a program based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s theory of well-being: PERMA+ :Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. The plus sign includes such things as physical activity, nutrition, and sleep.

Her goal during the week was to help the women rediscover their strengths, resiliency, and sense of purpose by merely illuminating to them what is already inside them. “I think that that’s how the positive psychologist needs to work altogether,” she said.

And work it did. Bonds quickly formed, and by the end of the week – on top of a mountain reached by gondola – the mothers’ group talked about what they had learned, how the experience had transformed them, and how accessing and cultivating their strengths and sense of purpose was helping them to thrive amidst the horror of losing their homes and, in some cases, their families.

“I saw the power of giving permission to thrive. To people who are not mentally ill – these were fairly healthy people who ended up in a horrific crisis – how helpful this approach could be without necessarily accessing the trauma and focusing on it,” Oren said. “I can speak as a gardener, if you want a floriferous garden, water the flowers not the weeds.”

How Oren got connected to Mountain Seed Foundation in May and wound up in Austria is itself a story, one with roots that go back nearly 120 years.

War broke out in Ukraine on February 24. When Oren began to see photos on TV of families fleeing the country, she was reminded of her own family’s experience of having to quickly drop everything and move on from home.

In 1903 her maternal great-grandmother fled Kiev with her eight children. The family settled in Israel in a village a mile from the border with Jordan with 11 other Jewish families. Exactly 30 years later, in 1933, her paternal grandmother fled Germany with her boys. They lived a year in Lebanon and ultimately were granted permission to enter Israel where Oren’s parents met.

What better way to bring hope to these desperate Ukrainian families than by saying, “My ancestors were refugees who experienced the same painful journey, hardships, and losses as you,” Oren said. “They made it. I have a wonderful life. I am here to tell you that I am your future and your children’s future.”

She also imagined strangers along the route where the women and children walked giving them food and offering them shelter and encouragement. “I wanted to be the stranger to these people, to pay it forward.”

Oren began reaching out to contacts to see how she could help the families. Ultimately, she connected with a group of Ukrainian therapists led by one of the country’s leading psychologists. Dr. Viktor Vus, who asked Oren to put on a webinar to teach self-care to Ukrainian therapists.

I saw the power of giving permission to thrive. To people who are not mentally ill – these were fairly healthy people who ended up in a horrific crisis – how helpful this approach could be without necessarily accessing the trauma and focusing on it.

Amit Oren, PhD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

Like other faculty members at Yale, Oren had volunteered her therapy skills during the pandemic, training in a specialty called positive psychology, which is the study of human flourishing. She became aware after war broke out in Ukraine that others at the medical school were working to help the Ukrainian people. She put on a webinar with a Ukrainian association which was trying to help business owners stay afloat during the war, but then out of the blue got an email from the Mountain Seed Foundation. The foundation’s organizers got her name from Dr. Irena Tocino, a Ukrainian-American physician at Yale.

Oren was asked if she would be willing to do some therapy work for Ukrainian families that had been invited to Austria so their children could mountain climb as a form of therapy.

“Just tell me when and where to show up and I’m there,” she said.

Mountain Seed was started by Americans Nathan and Dana Schmidt who currently live in Zambia and who, after several years of living in Ukraine, were moved by the images of children and families being uprooted.

The foundation is raising money to provide shelter, clothing, and food for the families, but also organizes events like the mountain climbing trip to provide healing and resilience to Ukraine’s affected children.

On the mountain, the children were taught resiliency, self-confidence, trust, optimism, how to plan, and how to recognize their own strengths by climbing with expert mountaineers from Europe. Oren asked what their mothers would be doing while the children were on the mountain because she believes children do well when their parents do well.

She developed a curriculum for the 11 mothers and one grandmother that stressed cultivating strengths, resiliency skills, and a sense of purpose, encouraged an acceptance of uncertainty and connecting with others. She taught them “power breathing” to address anxiety and create a state of relaxation and a “power pose” to create a sense of empowerment.

She talked through a translator about tapping good feelings, and every day the group did some form of physical activity, whether it was a walk or yoga. One day they went to a thermal bath to stress the importance of self-care even under dire circumstances.

The entire group numbered about 60 people, and the children ranged in age from 5 to 16. Other team members included friends and colleagues of the Schmidts who mostly had a military or government background. These volunteers arrived from various places in Europe and the United States. Oren was the oldest, but she is physically active and said she felt invigorated being in the mountains surrounded by a team of people who started off as strangers and within a week became a cohesive dream team.

“Everyone seemed to have a unique expertise or talent and intention of making this work. They demonstrated a commitment that was quite inspiring,” she said.

Every night the staff would meet to talk about the day. What worked? What didn’t? Which child or adult needed special attention? What can we do better?

The week was chronicled by filmmaker Max Lowe, who directed the documentary “Torn” now featured on Disney +. He was following one of the families and included the retreat in the filming.

Oren said the experience was life changing not only for the families, but for the staff. There seemed to be a parallel process in how the participants and team members changed. She said the experience made her and others feel exquisitely alive, present, and connected.

“Each of us arrived with our own individual story. What this week told me is the magic that happens when the stories are interwoven. They create a powerful community.

Her only request of the women?

“If you feel you have received a gift here, the only thing we ask is that you pay it forward.” she said. “You may not be going home, but wherever the journey takes you, help someone in your new community.”

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on September 02, 2022