On March 26, 2022, I had the great fortune to virtually sit and chat with Ukraine-born Psychotherapist, author, TEDx speaker, and self-proclaimed geek, Dr. Janina Scarlet. Janina is a refugee who survived Chernobyl radiation and persecution before immigrating to the US. Since then, she has authored 10 books and received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award by the United Nations Association for her work on Superhero Therapy, which is used to help those suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Laila: Janina, it’s an absolute pleasure to talk with you today, especially in light of so many crisis situations occurring in the world right now, and specifically the war in your homeland of Ukraine. Let me begin by offering my deepest condolences to those friends and family you have lost and the heartbreaking destruction of your country.
As we get started, please share with our readers a little bit more about yourself.
Janina: Sure. So, I am a clinical psychologist and I specialize in working with folks with trauma, including complex trauma and combat trauma. My post-doctoral training was working with active duty service members, primarily Marines, who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, I have worked with civilians who have experienced violence and trauma, including refugees from other countries, people who have been in violent relationships, or individuals who experienced severe sexual abuse.
Laila: Could you tell us what is the difference between combat trauma versus, let’s say, being in a car accident?
Janina: Sure, and both can be extremely traumatic and really affect a person’s life. Some of the triggers sometimes can be different, so for individuals who were in a car accident, the traumatic reminders might be related to the road, or maybe to not being in control for example, or being driven into certain places, so the triggers might be a little bit more focused in some instances. In combat trauma, some of the triggers might be being in open spaces, for example in football stadiums, driving on a really wide-open road, driving where there’s a trash bag nearby. People might think there is a landmine, cars backfiring, fireworks… that can cause people to drop to the ground. Also, airplanes flying by is something that can be startling for combat survivors.
Laila: Please share with our readers some first-hand accounts of the day-to-day crisis unfolding in the Ukrainian cities hardest hit right now. Maybe the accounts you are hearing from your family and friends. What are we not seeing here?
Janina: Sure. I think that in the West, we are not seeing the depth of things that don’t always make it to the news. I want to point out that American journalists, Western journalists, are doing a wonderful job of covering everything that they can. There are just so many things happening simultaneously that they can’t possibly cover it all. So, things like people burning alive, things like innocent civilians, who are cooking food outside their already destroyed homes, and then are gunned down. Things like Ukrainian women being sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers, in some of the reported cases, in front of their children. These are the cases that are barely making it into the news. Yahoo just recently had an article about one woman who was assaulted in front of her children by two Russian soldiers, but the extent of it, the number of cases like this, we are not seeing.
Laila: Wow, that is so heartbreaking. What can we do, as people who are not in Ukraine, to make a difference, you know, when we can’t get on a plane and physically help them? What can we do?
Janina: The best thing we can do is to share information. If you see something, if somebody shares a video about something awful happening, share it because you are essentially saying to this person, I see you, I see your pain, your pain is important, and I am going to let other people know about your pain.
Laila: Any other things we can do to support the people of Ukraine, or support the people of other wars going on right now?
Janina: I think posting a comment or reply, such as, you know, I see your pain, I’m with you, I’m thinking of you, just letting people know they are not alone is very important. I think donating to organizations like Unicef or Red Cross, for instance, meditating and praying for these countries are also very important, for our resilience and theirs. But I think the more we can share information and then write thoughtful comments, the more we are supporting those people.
Laila: Even with the devastation we have read and watched over the last few weeks, I see Ukrainians with hope, determination, a positive outlook, a sense of common humanity, and great resilience. So many individuals are returning to their cities and back to their bombed homes to rebuild.
Janina: I think that in extreme situations like these, what can break resilience is people feeling alone and isolated. However, what builds their resilience is comradery and solidarity; people knowing that the world has their back, that other people believe in them and support them. There was just an article about a Ukrainian refugee who ran a marathon in Jerusalem, a couple of days ago, I think, and won first place without ever training for a marathon. I believe she won by two hours and forty-five minutes, and she said that she ran for Ukraine. In her mind, she had dedicated this run to peace in Ukraine and that is what allowed her to run the entire marathon and get first place. Knowing that there is a sense of purpose, knowing that other people believe in us, knowing that there is this sense of comradery creates resilience.
Laila: Could you please share with us a little bit about your own experience with resiliency and going through the Chernobyl experience?
Janina: Like many people in Ukraine, my family and I were exposed to radiation. I felt extremely ill and weak in my body and mind. It left me broken and helpless. At age 16, once I was living in the US, I saw my first X-Men movie and found hope inside me. Through fictional characters who had experienced severe adversity yet were able to band together and support one other, I found a way to relate. This allowed me to realize that we are not victims of our experiences but are survivors and that by banding together we can support ourselves and help other people as well.
Laila: I love that through your Superhero therapy, you’ve created a ground-breaking way of uplifting people, instilling hope, tapping into self-compassion, and a deep sense of common humanity. Who is your own personal superhero?
Janina: I have two. One of them is Storm from the X-Men—she was my first introduction to superheroes, one that I’ve really looked up to—and currently my favorite is the Scarlet Witch. She too had been through a war where she saw buildings destroyed by missiles. She too was a refugee from a country at war, and for the longest time she didn’t know her place in the world, but when she joined The Avengers she found a sense of purpose, a sense of giving back and supporting other people. I also loved that her way of coping with grief and trauma is through watching sitcoms. She is somebody who uses her imagination in creating a sense of purpose, which really speaks to me personally.
Laila: Finding our own role models and mentors, whether fictional or non-fictional, are great examples of tapping into the inner wisdom and inner resources that are already instilled within us. They are the reflection of the innate resources that we humans innately have within.
My deepest gratitude, Janina, for your sharing today. May all people everywhere be held with safety and peace.
Photo by Luis Galvez