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Crisis hotline supports Ukrainian veterans at an especially stressful time

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine's president is in the spotlight, but the Ukrainian people will all live with the results of whatever happens next. And the current standoff has been especially hard on the men and women who've served in Ukraine's armed forces.

PAUL NILAND: In total, over 400,000 men and women have seen active duty on the front lines in the fight against Russian aggression. And every country knows, particularly the United States of America, there's a duty of care to veterans after they return from war.

MARTIN: That's Paul Niland. He is the founder of Lifeline Ukraine. That's a crisis hotline aimed at helping veterans there. It began in 2019 in response to the stress veterans and soldiers felt about the conflict in the Donbas region. Niland says that veterans in Ukraine are especially stressed right now because many of them are in the reserves and will have to fight should Russia invade. But they're not alone.

NILAND: In addition to having over 400,000 combat veterans, we already have 1.7 million people who are internally displaced as well. They left the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, or they left Crimea when Russia illegally annexed that territory. And then, you know, there are other factors not related to the war as well that have, in the last few years, contributed to the kind of stress levels that people have - for example, COVID and the stress that living with a pandemic has caused and the lockdowns that we all experienced at one point or another.

MARTIN: Niland says those stressors have led to an uptick in calls.

NILAND: One of the things that I often hear my colleagues doing when they're taking crisis calls is they do breathing exercises with that person because the person is at a heightened state of anxiety. Another sentence that I hear very, very often is, I can hear you crying, and that's fine. It's good to cry. You're letting your emotions out. You know, they're the kind of conversations that we have.

MARTIN: Given the current situation, Ukrainians from all walks of life call the hotline. But he says the calls from veterans, many of whom are in the reserves and experiencing post-traumatic stress, are among the most memorable and the most rewarding.

NILAND: And often, you know, I'll hear conversations, particularly, in fact, with veterans who call us, and my colleague will say, before the war, what did you enjoy doing? What were your hobbies? And the answer might be, I would go fishing. OK, so who did you go fishing with? The answer is, my buddy, Ivan (ph). And when did you last speak to Ivan? I haven't spoken to him since, you know, whenever. And then we'll say, OK, well, why don't you make a plan to call Ivan and to go fishing with him next weekend? And you guys take a bottle of vodka with you. That's OK. That's how people fish here, you know? And that's what you're doing. You're taking a person and helping them to build plans for the future and see positive things that they want to do and that they look forward to doing.

MARTIN: Despite the challenges facing Ukraine, Niland, who is from the U.K., says that there isn't a feeling of dread in the country.

NILAND: What the mood is right now in the country - not just among the military, but in the country - what the mood is, is resilient. The fact is, is that an unprovoked war was unleashed upon us, and we stood up to protect this country and to protect Ukrainian citizens.

MARTIN: Still, he says, that given the ongoing conflict and the ways it affects daily life, Ukraine needs more mental health services that address the challenges facing the country.

NILAND: There is no way that Ukraine can, again, be left without a suicide prevention hotline. We never had one in the entire history of this country. There was never a suicide prevention hotline here, and there has been for the last two and a half years, and there must be forever.

MARTIN: That was Paul Niland, founder of Lifeline Ukraine, a crisis hotline based in Kyiv. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.