Doctor Finds Creative Ways to Treat Mental Illness in Ukraine

Rajeev Fernando
Rajeev Fernando outside Red Cross buildings in the Ukraine.

Rajeev Fernando MD RES’10 boarded a flight to Ukraine immediately after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. At the time, Fernando didn’t know what he would do there, but he knew he had useful skills as a disaster medicine physician. Since then, his focus has become fighting an invisible enemy—mental illness.  

“Russian aggression has exacerbated mental health problems,” says Fernando, medical director of Heal-Corp, a Florida-based nonprofit currently dedicating its focus to Ukraine, treating soldiers and civilians with mental illness, among other humanitarian efforts. “Every Ukrainian goes to bed at night not knowing whether they’ll wake up.” 

Fernando is also the founder of Chiraj, a global humanitarian nonprofit based in New York City. In June 2022, Chiraj opened a wellness center in Ukraine where Fernando serves as chief medical officer, treating victims of war suffering from mental illness and conflict-associated trauma. He says 40% of the center’s clients have experienced threats to their lives or witnessed such threats to others.  

Art therapy is one of the most conservative treatments available at the center and is especially helpful for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dmitry Tytula, the center’s art therapy psychologist, says developing therapeutic creativity with patients can help them better cope with tension and complex emotions, a “mental reboot,” as he calls it. Both adults and children can participate in art therapy, and some of the children’s artwork is displayed at the Vakulenko Art Consulting Gallery, one of the largest galleries in Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv.  

As for Fernando himself: “I do prophylactic mental health upkeep. Otherwise, stress can accumulate.” For example, over the holidays, he went to the Santa Claus Village in Finland to find out whether reindeer really can fly, he said with a laugh.  

He has always been interested in helping people around the world, which is why he chose to do his fellowship at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. “I didn’t see other programs with infectious disease combined with international health,” says Fernando, who was recently awarded with the inaugural Martin Luther King Distinguished Alumni Award from the Geisel Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement. During his fellowship, he helped care for the large refugee population in the region.  

“Every day is a new challenge with humanitarian work, but we must honor the oath we took. We can’t stand by and watch people suffer.”