Ukraine

The Delicate Balance of Mental Health in Ukraine

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The Jenga-like tower erected by IOM in the centre of Kyiv to raise awareness of mental health. © IOM/Volodymyr Shuvayev

Kyiv, 7 Oct 2021 – As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, and after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, the challenges of daily life for Ukrainians remain all-too obvious; less visible is the toll on the mental health of the most vulnerable.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been actively helping those with mental health issues for some time, running a toll-free emotional support hotline staffed by four operators, seven psychologists and one psychiatrist. More than 3,400 consultations have been provided in the hotline’s first year of operation. People are reaching out from across Ukraine, but most are women from the conflict-affected Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Only 30 per cent of the callers in the first year were male.

“The culture of seeking professional mental health and psychosocial support is only beginning to develop in Ukraine. Men are significantly more hesitant than women as they rarely express their feelings, trying to mask their stress instead,” said Anh Nguyen, Chief of Mission at IOM Ukraine.

To encourage more men to seek help, IOM has launched a new campaign aimed at men and boys called “Start Talking and You Will Feel Better”.

“We want to show that it is normal to seek professional help when you feel anxiety, fear, or depression. It is important to recognize the symptoms of psychological problems in time and not keep everything inside,” said Nguyen.

The recent public launch in Kyiv featured a giant Jenga board game, made of tiles with messages such as “I will manage”, “You have to be strong”, “I am just tired”, “Leave me alone”. As individual blocks were removed and the tower collapsed, hidden messages appeared, showing what might really be going on: “I cannot sleep”, “This has no end”, “I am scared”, “I cannot stand this anymore”.

The street installation forms part of a public campaign funded by the US Department of State – Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).

On hand to lend his support was former Los Angeles Laker Stanislav Medvedenko.

“When I was a professional basketball player everything was great. I had so much adrenaline, the whole world was so bright,” he said. “But after several injuries I had to finish my sports career. The world around me immediately became monochrome and my life changed completely.’’

He has advice for men going through difficult times: “First, remember that you can rely on your family. Care more for your children and family, it will help you a lot. Second, do not be afraid to learn something new and explore the world. And third, do not be afraid of new challenges such as changing your occupation. I used to be a professional sportsman and now I’m an official starting public work. I managed it and you will too.”

Opening the street installation, Olha Revuk, Deputy Minister of Social Policy of Ukraine, confirmed that many Ukrainians face stress that may lead to additional mental health issues.

“We see the increase in domestic violence, and we know that people who are vulnerable at home can further fall prey to criminals, including situations of human trafficking. Therefore, mental health is of crucial significance on both the individual and societal level, and it also affects the perspective of socioeconomic development,” she said.

Renee Lariviere, Regional Refugee Coordinator at the United States embassy in Kyiv, said that the US humanitarian assistance is intended to relieve the suffering of those impacted by the conflict in Donbas.

“I hope that this campaign will combat the stereotypes about mental health in Ukraine. It will show those who are struggling that they are not alone, and ensure they know there are resources available to offer them immediate and non-judgmental assistance,” she said. “Knowing when to ask for help is a sign of strength, and not a weakness.”

The campaign is already having an impact: within a few days the number of men contacting the hotline grew by 60 per cent. The main reasons for calling the hotline are problems with their partner, a state of anxiety and fear, problems with children, severe experiences of loss, and lack of motivation.

IOM Ukraine’s previous public campaign on COVID-19 and mental health won a prestigious SABRE Award earlier this year.

This story was written by Varvara Zhluktenko, Head of the Communications Unit at IOM Ukraine, Email: VZHLUKTENKO@iom.int