UCF faculty offers teletherapy sessions to Ukrainian mental health professionals

In difficult times, Fred Rogers always advised to look for the helpers. Sometimes the helpers also need support.

And as the world watched Russia invade Ukraine in February, Gulnora Hundley ’04MA ’08PhD — associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology — knew she had to do something to help.

Hundley is a Uzbek native and a mental health consultant. He also speaks Russian and has monitored comments and posts on social media from the mental health communities of Russia and Ukraine. She saw the calls for help from various colleagues who provide free mental health services to Ukrainian patients, but Hundley also wanted to give mental health professionals their own safe space with resources to deal with and process trauma.

Hundley says she chose to help mental health professionals because they are trained to self-regulate, which means they have the ability to self-monitor and control their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. If someone not trained in self-regulation experiences a trigger, she might not be there personally to help them through it. This could ultimately be detrimental to the customer.

“I wanted to start with psychologists who, because of our training, know how to self-regulate. If they’re too upset, they know what to do right now,” she says.

That’s when she decided to post a message offering her services to colleagues and helping the volunteers. Within hours it had generated so much interest that she began planning group therapy sessions to help these professionals through the recent trauma.

Hundley uses a psychotherapeutic treatment called the EMDR Group Traumatic Episode Protocol (G-TEP), an early intervention approach aimed at relieving stress associated with traumatic memories. Her Saturday sessions are held via telemedicine and each last about two and a half hours. Participants from Poland, Ukraine and other nearby locations are tuning in.

“It’s very appropriate and timely for what’s happening with Ukrainian colleagues,” she says. “The purpose is not to process all trauma in two and a half hours. The purpose of this methodology is to help them reduce the intensity and distance themselves from the effects of the trauma. You are surrounded by trauma every day and no one can erase that just yet. What we unlock is the ability to deal with what they have because it is their reality. It’s all about resilience, coping and courage to get through this.”

Hundley’s first meeting was on March 12 with 10 participants. Since then, she has been able to offer her services to more than 60 Ukrainian mental health professionals, with another 50 on a waiting list.

Gulnora Hundley ’04MA ’08PhD leads a telemedicine consultation session with mental health professionals affected by the war in Ukraine.

In each session, participants are guided through a series of exercises using eye movements and special charts to help them process specific traumatic experiences. The goal is to desensitize unpleasant memories and focus their attention on future positive outcomes.

Participants have the opportunity to share their experiences and situations. Hundley says they spoke about grief, loss and the separation from loved ones. Some stayed behind to care for elderly parents while others have struggling husbands there. One person in Kyiv attended the session from a bathtub under a mattress because it was the safest place available with internet access. Another therapist had a client who was killed when his building was bombed. Even simple decisions like going outside or walking the dog are traumatic due to the ever-present fear of being attacked.

Others, she says, become almost deaf to what’s happening as a defense mechanism. Some said the time in their session allowed them to forget the war for a while and focus on themselves – a rarity for professionals in a field focused on helping others.

During each session, Hundley also collects data to see how participants’ levels of disruption are changing. When a person is struck by recent trauma, they go through a process of emotional fragmentation. Early intervention helps reduce traumatic damage down the road.

The knowledge that her participants trust and open up to a stranger in the USA also does not come naturally to Hundley. She says it is a humbling experience to witness their courage and resilience, along with each group’s collective strength and willingness to empower one another.

“One group member said, ‘I feel like my individual hope isn’t enough.’ This whole group then said, ‘You have my hope,'” she says. “In the end everyone got together and said, ‘We have a common hope and that’s going to get us through.’ What amazes me is that they still help. They are on the phone helping their customers and helping anyone who needs it. They are very grateful for any kind of help that is offered to them and they are amazed at how many people offer this support. Sometimes that’s just what they need – hope. This work is my small contribution to a slightly better world.”

Hundley graduated from Tashkent State Medical School in Uzbekistan and received his PhD in Psychiatry from the Institute of Mental Health in Moscow, Russia. She immigrated to the United States in 1994 and earned a Masters in Mental Health Counseling and a PhD in Counseling Education from UCF. Hundley has over three decades of mental health experience and has experience treating adults with a variety of mental health issues in both the United States and the former Soviet Union. She is an EMDR Certified Therapist, EMDR Counselor, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Qualified Clinical Supervisor. She currently practices in Winter Park.

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