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How are Ukrainian mental health workers responding to a collective crisis?

Better me: smartphone wellbeing support

The stats are overwhelming: back in 2017, 84.6 % of Ukrainians from the general population reported having experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at least once in their lifetime, coming first on the worldwide traumatic exposure list, according to World Mental Health Survey. Four months into the war, although no official information has been gathered, I believe the figure is probably 100% of Ukrainians.

As a Ukrainian researcher focusing on mental health, I feel completely overwhelmed, thinking about when and how we will be able to recover from this collective trauma. In search of answers, I talked to two Ukrainian projects that provide mental health solutions: can their solutions address rapidly growing needs in this sector and, once the war ends, who is taking care of the well-being of mental health workers themselves affected by the trauma?

This is the first blog in the two-blog series in which I am interviewing the team of BetterMe. In addition, I asked Ukrainian illustrators to draw their mental state, since the war has started.

“Human psyche cannot digest so much pain”. Oksana Kurmaz, 2022

BetterMe is a leading Ukraine-based behavioural healthcare company providing self-help apps that promote physical and mental health. The first app appeared in 2016 as a weight loss solution, in line with the trends. However, its founder, Victoria Repa, throughout its existence, concluded that promoting non-medically supervised weight loss may not be entirely helpful for everyone. Since then, BetterMe has transformed and offered different behavioural daily programs centered around physical aspects of health like easy exercise and meal plans, as well as mental health support — breathing exercises, relaxing soundscapes, and interactive microlearning courses.

The app’s component targeting mental health has a chatbot, where people can answer questions and be guided to programs to help improve their daily routine. According to the team, this can be useful in the early stages of experiencing psychological problems. The team adds: “The point is self-awareness and reflection. We explain what happens to the body when people are going through a certain emotional state and recommend manageable coping strategies that could improve the situation. We do not tell people what to do but rather ask questions that could help them identify where the trouble stems from on their own. People report the most typical issues: burnout, recovery from a breakup, sleep problems, stress, anger management, and baby blues.”

“I painted this after reading about 40 rockets falling on Central Ukraine (they never stopped falling)”. Masha Marykutsa, 2022

Where were you when the war started?

Like every Ukrainian on February 24th, we were in a state of complete shock. In the first days, our priority was the health and safety of our team, so we formed a department of crisis management and started to evacuate everyone to Western Ukraine as fast as we could. Now 60% of the team is in Western Ukraine; some have returned to Kyiv, although we are not recommending it, and 10% relocated to Poland, where we offer to work from our partners’ office. Everyone was utterly shocked, but the sense of urgency this situation created gave us wings.

“Every day we are losing friends, family, and children. I do not want to become numb to it”. Oksana Kurmaz, 2022

What are your social projects related to the war in Ukraine?

Already in the first days of the war, we made two of our apps — Mental Health and Health Coaching — free for all Ukrainians. Before the war, most of our users were from English-speaking Western countries, but the percentage of Ukrainian users has quadrupled.

At first, we wanted to create a new micro-learning program about handling the post-traumatic stress created by war. Still, we realised that it is not appropriate, at the moment, because traumatic events keep happening to everybody and people have different problems. Instead, we collaborated with UNICEF UKRAINE and added some

components that helped parents handle the stress of the war while still raising children. For example, we added calming audio fairytales in Ukrainian, de-stressing games, and advice for different scenarios that can happen to children during the war — e.g. how to soothe your child in a bomb shelter, what to do if a child is experiencing a panic attack. Our next collaboration is with the Ministry of Science and Education, where they recommend the best Physical Education (PE) teachers in Ukraine to give online PE classes through our app BetterMe: Health Coaching.

To engage the financial help of our international audience supporting Ukraine, we released a collection of sportswear in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, and 50% of the sales are going towards UNICEF Ukraine’s fund supporting children harmed through the war. It seemed like many projects to start in three months, but we could not sit still.

“War is not the norm”. Oksana Kurmaz, 2022

Do you see any feedback from your Ukrainian users on the effectiveness of including app-based solutions as an additional way of supporting their mental and physical health right now? And what do you think will happen after the war?

I think after the war, it will be essential to provide solutions for handling the stress brought on by the war trauma. As we said, we are still keen to add a program centered around this centered the time is right. We want to create something useful not just for the war veterans but for everyone who has been affected by the war directly or indirectly. We have had 100 000 new Ukrainian users join since February 24th. From the beginning of the war, 64.6% of Ukrainian users used the app to reduce stress, 64.2% to feel happier, and 58% to combat anxiety. Our audio fairytales for children are also among the most popular features. Of course, we understand that an app can only do so much, and it is instead a supplementary solution to the mental health challenges our country is and will be facing.

Mental Health app. Image courtesy by BetterMe

As a mental health researcher and a Ukrainian woman going through this war, I am hopeful too. While I do not think smartphone apps should be seen as a panacea, they can certainly help plan a healthy routine and send reminders to take care of yourself, and sometimes that is already enough.


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