Preventing Suicide Among Veterans in Ukraine
23 October, 2019
Five years since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, a 24/7 national helpline has been created to prevent high suicide rates among veterans. But will this development help overcome the mental health stigma?

It is 7 p.m. on Monday, October 14 – the Defender's Day in Ukraine. A phone rings in an office building on Kyiv’s riverside. A man picks up the phone while five others look at him attentively. "Good evening, you have reached Lifeline Ukraine," he says. Everyone in the office holds their breath. 

That was the first call for the newly launched Ukrainian hotline for preventing suicide among veterans (available on the number 7333). As the founder Paul Niland speaks about it, his eyes spark with excitement. An Irish writer who lived in Ukraine for 16 years, he has been working to launch this helpline for the past year. And now it is finally operational. 

A Ukrainian soldier near a checkpoint in Debaltseve,  Donetsk region, Ukraine on August 16, 2014. Photo: EPA

The idea to create such a hotline was first mentioned by the former minister of healthcare Ulana Suprun in 2016. Based on Australian and Israeli experience, and with the financial support of the British Embassy in Kyiv, the project aims to deliver emotional first aid of the highest standards.

READ MORE: Nearly 60,000 Ukrainians Became Disabled As a Result of Donbas War

"One of the greatest tragedies in Ukraine right now"

Out of the 52 calls Lifeline Ukraine got in the first week, several were suicidal. When someone is feeling suicidal on the other end of the line, what you need to do is keep them engaged for 15 minutes, Niland tells Hromadske.

“If you can talk them out of their current mindset over a 15-minute period, you have saved a life," Niland explains. 

According to him, the number of suicide deaths among war veterans is "one of the greatest tragedies that we have in Ukraine right now." It is hard to find official figures, however, in April 2018, the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on veterans, Oleksandr Tretyakov, said that the number of combat veterans who took their own lives exceeds 1,000. 

Founder of Lifeline Ukraine Paul Niland speaks to Hromadske on October 18 at their office in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Natalia Smolentceva / Hromadske

But Niland speculates that this number may even be higher.“A lot of suicides don’t look like suicides, they might look like traffic accidents or alcohol overdose,” he says. Ukraine has 390,000 veterans of the Donbas war. All of them, as well as their relatives, may be at risk. 

READ MORE: Veteran Turned Singer Shares Unique Outlook on Post-War Life

Ukraine’s situation is not unique. Veterans returning from wars with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and other kinds of trauma is a global issue. But the suicide rate in Ukraine is very high: the country is 8th in the world according to the World Population Review

"They gave us guns but no tools to cope with PTSD"

Ukraine had nearly zero experience in dealing with post-war trauma before the conflict in eastern Ukraine sparked in 2014. Back then, the country could not provide sufficient equipment to its soldiers, let alone psychological help.

“They gave us guns – no salaries, no ammunition – just guns and that is all,” Taras Kovalyk, a veteran who was on the Donbas frontline in 2014-2015, tells Hromadske. When asked about psychological training, he laughs. 

Taras Kovalyk, a veteran of the war in Donbas, speaks to Hromadske on October 17. Photo: Natalia Smolentceva / Hromadske

Ukraine has only recently started taking care of its veterans and their mental health. In November 2018, the Ministry for Veteran Affairs was created. Nearly a year later, this September, it was merged with the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons of Ukraine.

The newly merged ministry is planning to create a rehabilitation center for war-related PTSD on the base of the hospital "Lisova Polyana" just outside of Kyiv. They are also working on a unified electronic register for veterans of war, electronic platform "E-veteran", and societal and educational spaces for veterans across the country. But, so far, these are just plans. 

"Mental health still a taboo topic in Ukraine"

Taras Kovalyk is now a psychologist and trainer with the NGO "Pobratymy" ("Comrades"). They provide peer-to-peer support groups for veterans and their relatives. In his experience people mostly come to seek psychological support when the problem gets too big to manage on their own.

READ MORE: 4 Years of War in Donbas, 4 Years of Humanitarian Challenges

“Here in Ukraine we still have this post-soviet stigma,” he says.

There is an assumption that if one is asking for help of a psychologist or psychiatrist, they are already sick. However, he is positive that the situation is slowly changing. People start finding out about opportunities like Pobratymy or Lifeline Ukraine by word of mouth.

Mental health and suicides are still largely taboo topics in the Ukrainian society. Many veterans, especially men, are reluctant to seek professional medical support.

“But a veteran can call another veteran,” Niland says. That is why Lifeline Ukraine is putting a strong focus on peer-to-peer support. 

"Even strong people have weak moments" 

Half of the Lifeline Ukraine team are veterans themselves. Oleksandr Chamorsov returned from the war in 2015. He remembers that day vividly: he spent it sitting next to the window dressed in his military uniform, coping with enormous desire to go back and fight.

Oleksandr Chamorsov, a veteran of the war in the Donbas, at the office of Lifeline Ukraine in Kyiv on October 18. Photo: Natalia Smolentceva / Hromadske

"There you see your comrades dying, shellfire, destroyed buildings, and here people speak about rising prices, vacations  everything but war,” he recalls his feelings back then. It is in order to figure out what was going on inside him, Chamorsov decided to study psychology. Now he is helping other veterans who are experiencing frustration, anger and loneliness or are on a brink of taking their lives. 

READ MORE: Donbas War Reality Takes Center Stage at This British Theater

A phrase scribbled on a piece of paper hung on the wall behind him reads “Even strong people have weak moments.” That is the message Chamorsov and other consultants of Lifeline Ukraine convey to those who are calling.

It takes guts to ask for help.

Lifeline Ukraine is available on the telephone number 7333 around the clock across Ukraine.

/By Natalia Smolentceva