Less than a year ago, Dr Vlad Beliavsky was wondering how to celebrate the completion of his first book. Exhausted by all his writing but feeling proud, he had returned home to Ukraine after four years of working in the UK and planned to go travelling for a few months before his next project. Top of his agenda: surfing and cycling in Asia, with plenty of relaxing breakfasts and coffee by the ocean.
Then the Russian invasion began.
Until February 2022, Beliavsky had dedicated his career to mental health, achieving a PhD in psychology the University of Warwick. “Before the war, I never imagined that I would be in the army,” he says. “My values are kindness, compassion and growth, helping people to grow and heal, not about suppressing anyone.”
In a matter of days, his life changed. It was the Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station on 4 March, which could have released deadly radiation all across Europe, that convinced him to act.
“I couldn’t stand aside,” he says. “I had to enlist in the army.”
Nearly a year on, Beliavsky is a lieutenant with the State Cyber Protection Centre. As well as countering Russia’s information warfare, he is a member of its combat unit, ready to fight any saboteurs who want to storm his facility.
Speaking to i in his camouflaged uniform via video link, he can’t reveal precisely where he’s located, merely saying it‘s somewhere in central Ukraine. “It’s not permitted to disclose details about the service, because of the threats it may pose,” he explains. “The less I talk about where I am and what I’m doing, the better.”
While defending his nation has to come first now, Beliavsky’s mental health work is also more important than ever.
His book, The Pyramid Mind, is central to that goal. It outlines a new self-care programme he originally developed for “normal life”, but which he particularly hopes will now support Ukrainian soldiers and civilians during the war.
Taking inspiration from mixed martial arts, which involves moves from a variety of combat sports, he has selected an “integrative” range of techniques from different schools of therapy, explaining in practical terms how people can use them all for a well-rounded approach.
“It is revolutionary,” he claims. “Integrative therapy has existed for years, but I suggest a new approach. It’s pioneering.”
He is also launching a free app, Brightway, to help people start journalling every day as a key method of privately processing their thoughts better to relieve stress. It will be ideal for troops on the frontline, he believes.
“During war, we experience stress almost every day. It’s very acute, very intense – and people don’t have any clue how to cope,” says Beliavsky, 33.
“If you are a soldier, you will experience combat stress, because of life-threatening battles and sleep deprivation. Civilians are affected too. If you don’t deal with this, it will inevitably affect your mental functioning and you will perform your duties much worse. You will suffer physically and emotionally, and your family will be affected too.”
- Research shows that 22 per cent of people who experience war are thought to suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia within 10 years, meaning that nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population – 9.6 million people – are at risk of a mental health condition, according to the World Health Organization.
The mental cost of war
In the first weeks of war, the mental effects were obvious in Beliavsky’s own unit. “I saw how people changed emotionally and physically, how stress affected their mental health and behaviour,” he says. “I kept telling them: if you want to talk, I’m here. I’m available. I’m free.”
This is a matter of national importance, he argues. “Without taking care of our minds, we won’t survive. We won’t win the war. You need to be healthy to keep fighting. Nobody knows how long it will take. To keep going, to keep pushing, you need to do some mental hygiene on daily basis. These techniques are not very hard to learn.
“The war has a huge devastating negative impact right now on our minds and our souls. We need to save them. I have no doubt that we will win. But then thousands of soldiers will return home and they will need to look after their families, to raise their children. If you don’t feel emotionally well, how can you do that?”
Beliavsky knows from personal experience how traumatic the pressures of war can be. On one of his first days on duty, Ukrainian air defences shot down a Russian missile overhead and the fiery remnants crashed down around him as a shockwave shattered all nearby windows.
“It was a sunny afternoon and a senior officer was showing me around and explaining duties for the coming days,” he recalls. “Then everything happened very fast. I saw a guy smiling, talking, chatting – and in a moment you hear the sound and then there’s an explosion. The next second, you’re on the ground. You’re not choosing how to react – your natural instinctive behaviour drives what you do, to flee the danger.”
He felt a mix of “adrenaline and horror”, he writes in his book. “There is a joy that you are still alive. There is even curiosity that mixes with the keen sense of present danger. Many eyewitnesses take videos of the destruction and even go to the site of explosions, which is a really bad idea.”
Worse was to come. A few days later, he was working in a building near the Retroville shopping centre when the complex was hit by a Russian rocket. “It was completely destroyed,” he says. “I had friends who were there. All of them were killed.” In all, eight people died.
“Our unit wasn’t very far from that mall. I was chatting on my phone with a friend and then this explosion was huge and terrifying. The windows in our building were broken but we survived. For three days afterwards, I woke up from nightmares of that explosion. I heard the sound during my sleep, I heard it again.”
Seeing civilians targeted like this reinforced his decision to join the military. “You can either flee the country with your family or resist this evil. Some people, even in our century, will come and destroy the people and things we love and return us to the Middle Ages, where there is just violence, rape and murder.”
When Russian forces were on the outskirts of Kyiv and hoping to capture the Ukrainian capital, Beliavsky’s unit caught a number of saboteurs working for Putin’s forces. Guarding his building with a gun, he had to be wary of everyone.
“Saboteurs were normally dressed in ordinary clothes,” he writes. “But they were also known to disguise themselves sometimes as the Ukrainian army or police officers. So sometimes it was really hard to tell who was who.”
Rather than worrying about who could be lurking in the shadows, however, “it’s more terrifying when you hear artillery or air strikes and when there are incoming ballistic missiles, because those things you cannot control”, he tells me.
“If you’re faced with enemy soldiers, at least you can shoot back and you have a chance to survive, compared to when there is an explosion and you just hope that you die fast. Soldiers say that to me on a daily basis, they just hope they won’t suffer.”
- Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, revealed in December how some residents of Kharkiv, who lived in subways for three months to survive a Russian siege last year, could not “psychologically bring themselves to rise up”, leave the shelter and return to their homes once it was over.
Providing practical help
Vlad Beliavsky is fortunate to have trained in psychology, to learn methods of stopping worries from taking over his mind and affecting his life.
More than 400 different kinds of therapy have been developed in the past century, he explains in The Pyramid Mind, with different theories and different targets. Instead of specialising in one, he preferred to pick and mix.
His programme combines elements of cognitive therapy with parts of the psychodynamic, interpersonal, humanistic and behavioural schools, as well as mindfulness.
“In a nutshell, it’s a framework for self-care and self-understanding,” he says. “It’s a very accessible, comprehensive and science-based mind-management programme. You will learn how to work with your thoughts, memories, emotions, speech and behaviour – different parts of your mind.
“This is unique because usually you’ve got a book that focuses on just one aspect of how you function, like habits for instance, or just emotions. The main message of the book is how to learn to become a well-rounded self-care practitioner.
“All parts of your mental health, of your mind, are important – you shouldn’t ignore them. If you neglect some part of your functioning, potentially this could affect all your mental health.”
- Some Ukrainian refugees in the UK are troubled by anxiety and “survivor’s guilt”, the charity Revive recently warned.
- Between 30 and 70 per cent of all refugees will develop PTSD at some point, according to healthcare guidance from the UK Government. It has provided a free Psychological First Aid training package to help people support children and young people’s mental health.
He has long found that writing a diary is beneficial. “It’s about relieving and releasing everything entangled in your mind, to keep it in an external place so that your mind can slow down, especially you’re anxious and on high alert,” he explains. “We need to find a way to quieten our mind chatter. Journaling is the best thing that will help.”
This is one of the main techniques used in therapy sessions with a trained professional. “Usually therapists will give you assignments, tasks to do at home to self-reflect and self-analyse by writing down your feelings and observations. Then you take those notes to your therapist and it helps speed up the process of self-discovery and healing.”
It can also work when people are alone or don’t want to share their feelings. “When we don’t want to talk to anyone, we shut down. But a journal is a private, safe space just for you. You don’t need to control what you write. Nobody is going to judge you, nobody’s going see it,” he says.
“A simple technique is to write down the thoughts that are running through your mind. It will help you to process events in your life. If something traumatic occurs, write down what happened and how you feel. Instead of keeping it unconscious inside yourself, make it conscious, clear, and process it. It helps you release the strain of your emotions, instead of bottling them up.”
People can do this with any pen and paper, but he thinks the prompts and functionality of a dedicated app can help. “The problem with using traditional notebooks is that it’s hard to keep your thoughts organised, it’s hard to edit them.”
He hopes many Ukrainian soldiers could be helped by Brightway. “It’s free and giving 100,000 soldiers a free resource in their phones, that’s not complicated and could help them, would be fantastic.
“Traditionally, you would have a chaplain in each unit who would talk to the soldiers. In ideal world, you would have a psychologist. But we are living in a technological world, so we should take advantage of that to look after our mental health.
“If I devoted all my time to therapy, how many people would I help during a day? Eight or 10 at most. But if we develop technologies like this, we can potentially have an audience of thousands of people.”
While the UK is not fighting a war, anyone can develop mental health problems for all kinds of reasons and Beliavsky hopes his book can be just as useful for British readers.
“There is a rise in depression and anxiety in Western societies,” he says. “It’s about finding solutions.”
The Pyramid Mind: The new six-part programme for confidence, happiness and success by Dr Vlad Beliavsky is out now (£9.99, Simon & Schuster)