People and Community Research

Research finds ‘traumatic effects of war’ extend far beyond the front lines

Professors Olena Antonaccio and Robert J. Johnson are working on several studies that examine the mental health and other detrimental impacts of war on Ukrainians.
Women walk through the debris from shops damaged by bombings in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 15. Photo: The Associated Press

The impacts of war can be destructive on many fronts. 

But new research from two University of Miami faculty members reveals that the mental health toll of military conflicts for people living in Ukraine is particularly severe. 


Along with a team of researchers, sociology professors Olena Antonaccio, Robert J. Johnson, and doctoral alumna Anastasiia Timmer, who is now an assistant professor at California State University—Northridge, surveyed more than 1,200 residents and 300 internally displaced persons in the Ukrainian cities of Lviv and Kharkiv three years after the conflicts that started in 2014 with Russia.

This included the annexation of Crimea, and the war with Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas region. While they were not surprised to find symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among many Ukrainians, the researchers also demonstrated that these harmful effects of war were not limited to those on the front lines, but also affected civilians with no direct war exposure. 

“We found that civilians in Ukraine who experience war vicariously—through watching it on television or on social media—can begin to experience elevated symptoms of mental distress,” said Johnson, a sociologist who has also studied the impacts of war on Middle Eastern populations. 

Antonaccio, a criminologist who grew up in Lviv, added: “Our results suggest that the traumatic effects of war can extend beyond those directly enmeshed in it, and that its damaging consequences are wide-ranging.” 

These direct and vicarious experiences with war also raised the likelihood for Ukrainians in both cities to consider using physical violence on another person. The team’s findings were published recently in the British Journal of Criminology, and are part of a larger research project that collected data in Ukraine from 2017 to 2019. 

“No matter how people experienced war, either through being a participant in the conflict or talking about it to their neighbors, these experiences increased their willingness to use interpersonal violence,” Antonaccio pointed out. 

The researchers then looked for specific connections between war trauma and the likelihood to commit violence. 

“For example, people who were exposed to war vicariously and lived in Kharkiv, the city closer to the Donbas war zone, were getting angrier, which increased their likelihood to commit interpersonal violence,” Antonaccio said. 

This means that these people were more willing to threaten or physically harm another person, to hit someone, to threaten or use a weapon like a gun or knife, and to hurt someone severely, the report indicates. 


“As the level of stress in a population increases, the more they are willing to fight,” Johnson added. “We can see this happening in Ukraine today.” 

It also underscores the many obstacles that lay ahead for Ukrainians with a much larger war playing out today across the entire nation, the researchers reported. 

“Today, most of Ukraine is in this situation,” Antonaccio said. “We fear that these consequences will now be magnified, and even if the war stops soon, it will be many years before the negative consequences will fade.” 

From the 2017 survey, the team learned that 98 percent of people experienced some form of war exposure, and this led many people to be more willing to inflict violence on others. In addition, people who had vicarious war exposure and experienced daily strains, such as difficulty making enough money or finding proper health care, were even more likely to say they would use violence against another person. 

An earlier study published by the team in 2021 measured levels of PTSD among the populations of Lviv and Kharkiv, as well as those of people who were internally displaced by the 2014 war. The research indicated that most adult Ukrainians had elevated rates of PTSD, but the frequency was dramatically higher among people who were forced to move out of their homes because of the war. 

While Antonaccio and Johnson are working on future articles, they hope that this study sheds light on the vulnerable population of Ukraine as the war with Russia continues. In the 2014 conflict, Johnson said, 1.5 million people fled to other parts of Ukraine and 13,000 people died, even though little was reported about it. 

Both researchers also agree that once the current clash with Russia subsides, there will be a need for the many organizations looking to help Ukraine to offer mental health services there. 

“This is a nation stressed for lack of resources, so if there’s some way to help, it is for those who have the skills or resources to go and offer the Ukrainians some comfort—even if it’s at the border—because it is crucial at this time,” Johnson said. “And if we can be granted an outcome where the Ukrainians are successful in their defense, those resources will still need to be delivered to Ukraine because its citizens were already struggling before this war.”