It has to be said that the first step to resolving a problem is admitting that you have one. That is exactly what Dr. Ulana Suprun did in her decision to look at the problem of the suicide rate among Ukraine’s armed forces veterans: she recognised the problem, and then started looking at ways to address it.
Dr. Suprun, then Ukraine’s Acting Minister of Health, decided to invite experts from one of the leading suicide prevention organisations in the world to come to Ukraine, look at what existing capabilities there were here and to make recommendations as to what steps were needed. These specialists, from Lifeline Australia, analysed other call centres offering support for a variety of issues (La Strada run a call centre for women, there is a helpline for people living with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis) and as a result, Lifeline Australia offered three possible solutions to address the problem of veteran suicides; to create an amalgamation of these existing resources, to take one of those operations and invest in it to retool it for this purpose, or to create a new national 24/7 service from scratch.
After receiving the advice from Lifeline Australia, the next step was to identify a person who would be willing to lead the effort, and Dr. Suprun asked Paul Niland to consider taking on this responsibility. As a writer on matters related to Ukraine, Paul was well aware of the plight of Ukraine’s soldiers, and following a discussion between he and a former CEO of Lifeline Australia, Paul agreed to start working on what would become Lifeline Ukraine.
After analysing the report and recommendations from Lifeline Australia, and meeting at the Ministry of Health with representatives from other telephone support services and other interested parties, Paul decided that in order for Lifeline Ukraine to be able to offer world class support on the level of best international practices, the right choice would be for Lifeline Ukraine to be built from scratch. The starting point would be to look at how suicide prevention, particularly with regard to providing care to former service men and women, is handled around the world. Ukraine’s problem is acute, but it is not unique. Every nation that has sent troops into battle has suffered from similar issues of difficulties of re-adaptation into civilian life after war, of depression, and of PTSD. Ukraine doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, Ukraine needs to look at how others approach this situation, and learn from their experiences.
Looking around the world, seeing how countries like the UK and the US provide support for their veterans, it was decided to follow their models and create a service based on the peer to peer principle. There are several reason why this was considered the best approach for Ukraine: primarily it is because of the shared understanding and experience that veterans have, but it is also because of the bonds of trust that have been forged on the frontlines that make a call from one veteran to another easier to make. Unfortunately there is a stigma in Ukraine about reaching out for psychological support, and also a stigma more widely about suicide. But ignoring these problems doesn’t address them; the peer to peer principle of support overcomes these issues.
With the peer to peer model decided upon, the next consideration was how we would look after the mental health of our own colleagues once they started work. Any call centre environment is a stressful place to work. When dealing with callers in distress, of course the emotional burden would be high for those wanting to be a part of this mission. To address this, a two-tier system of in-house psychological care was created as part of the management strategy. While the bulk of our Crisis Line Consultants would be veterans, their Shift Managers would all need to be people with higher education qualifications in psychology, and then those Shift Managers would work closely with the Resident Psychological Consultant of Lifeline Ukraine. We did not know at the time, though we could have guessed we would find such people (or they would find us), that we would end up with people applying to join the team who were both veterans and psychologists!
Finding funding for any project is of course key, and this is often a challenge. Crowdfunding ideas were floated, and potential Corporate Partners were approached. But the breakthrough came when (as part of a larger project created by the East Europe Foundation, called All4One) Lifeline Ukraine was awarded a grant to cover the operational costs from the British Embassy in Ukraine. After winning the grant, and in subsequent meetings with the East Europe Foundation and Lifeline Ukraine, the Embassy explained how supporting a project like this, with a clear mission to save lives and alleviate suffering, was a perfect partnership for them.
With funding, and several Corporate Partnerships, secured the task of finding, interviewing, and testing of the Lifeline Ukraine team got underway in our new offices. The interest from people wanting to be a part of this initiative was (and still is) great, and throughout the interview process we have met some amazing and incredible and brave people. Often they talked about their motivation to be a part of this as an understanding of our collective responsibility to help one another and help the country, and linked that attitude back to the times of the Revolution of Dignity.
Many of the others who asked to join the team did so motivated by the basic desire to help out their fellow veterans, as they, themselves, have the greatest understanding of what their comrades may be experiencing.
The team had to be prepared to undertake their tasks, so after the basic selection process, we tested them to get a picture of each individuals’ psychological resilience. For veterans there were two tests, which came from research from the management team looking again to best international practices and methods. Equally then the first training session also looked to draw from best international expertise, with senior figures from the ERAN suicide prevention and emotional first aid service in Israel travelling to Kyiv to prepare the team for the commencement of their work. It was unsurprising that every man and woman who participated in the training days approached that process of gaining important foundational knowledge with enthusiasm and dedication and passion. They knew the task they have in front of them, it is they who have decided that this should be called our collective mission.
Our collective mission is to save lives, to provide comfort in times of distress, to make sure that every person who needs help, and as they say in ERAN “even the strong have weak moments”, knows that we are there for them. Anytime – 24/7, help is always close by.