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Analysis & Opinion
19.09.11 Calls For Help
By Svetlana Kononova

Russian crisis hotlines receive millions of calls annually. High suicide rates, violent deaths and domestic abuse create demand for social and psychological support. Such services indeed play a positive role, but in many cases they provide only limited help, and instead reflect the sheer scale of the problem. Experts say the state needs to take drastic action to truly tackle this problem.

Crisis hotlines in Russia are a relatively new phenomenon. The first service was established in the Soviet Union in 1982 by Ayna Abrumova, a professor and the head of the All-Union Suicide Center. Seven years later, the first hotline geared exclusively toward children and teenagers appeared in Moscow, and by the beginning of the 1990s dozens of services were operating in the country. Today, there are hundreds of crisis hotlines with several million subscribers. About three million people call for help every year.

Yet Russia still has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Moreover, psychologists and social workers point to a growing number of people from different social groups who need urgent psychological help. “In some small towns, crisis hotlines are the only opportunity for people to discuss their problems with professional psychologists. It is the only alternative to fortunetellers and charlatans, who are mostly illiterate,” said Andrew Kamin, the president of the Russian Association of Crisis Hotlines, an NGO that unites 225 different services.

Crisis hotline counselors in Russia are both professional psychologists and trained volunteers. Most services belong to different governmental branches – the Ministry of Health and Social Development, the Ministry of Education and Science, the State Committee for Youth Affairs, the Ministry of Emergency Situations and local municipal authorities. The rest are established and sponsored by NGOs. The problem, however, lay in coordinating all of these service providers. “The problem with Russian crisis hotlines is departmental disunity. Services would work more effectively by means of interdepartmental coordination and cooperation with specialized institutions and professionals, as the World Health Organization recommends in its Program for Suicide Prevention,” Kamin said.

But there are some positive changes taking place in these services. One of the most telling examples is the All-Russian Children Crisis Hotline (8 8000 200 122), which opened last year. Moreover, the Russian Association of Children Crisis Hotlines (RACCH) was created by the National Foundation for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NFPCC) in 2007 and integrates 284 services located in 67 regions. According to RACCH data, the number of appeals grows every year. While before 2010, counselors received up to 500,000 calls, including 35,000 calls annually about child abuse, now the number of children who apply for psychological help by phone has increased by 30 percent. “Children of school age call crisis hotlines more often. In most cases they want to talk about family problems, relationships with peers, school problems, their health or the health of their relatives. Often they want to receive information that they can’t find themselves. The most frequent themes for children are the same as they were several years ago. The number of appeals regarding threats on the Internet is growing,” said Marina Egorova, the president of NFPCC.

The most difficult cases are when children who call crisis hotlines are in immediate danger. “If the situation is life-threatening, the counselor should listen to a child carefully, understand what the danger is, and offer to take the child to a safe place (if needed), ask which adults could help and how to contact them, or place a child in a rehabilitation center. The child has to be asked to call back after some time to tell how things are going,” Egorova said.

Another example of psychological and social help available to Russians is the All-Russian Crisis Hotline for Victims of Domestic Violence (8 800 7000 600), organized by ANNA, an NGO that opened in March. Each counselor accepts ten to 15 phone calls daily. From a quarter to a third of callers come from Moscow and the surrounding area, and all calls are free. “From 65 to 70 percent of the calls we receive are about domestic violence. In other cases, people want to discuss their family relationships, decisions regarding a marriage or divorce, health problems, or addictions. But most appeals reflect dangerous life circumstances. Unfortunately, many women call us about domestic violence when they are already beaten regularly,” said Irina Matviyenko, a coordinator at the All-Russian Crisis Hotline. “There are no preventive measures to protect women and children from domestic violence in Russia. For example, in Western countries a woman can obtain a restraining order after even a single case of violent behavior by a husband or partner. In Russia, if the woman goes to the police after the first slap, policemen tell her that nothing serious had happened,” Matviyenko added. “In the United States, the number of violent domestic crimes such as serious injury or murder has decreased tenfold after the law on domestic violence was implemented. In Russia, a draft law on domestic violence was developed in the late 1990s, but was never approved. Now a new draft will be developed.”

According to all-Russian crisis hotline counselors, women who complain about domestic violence have different social backgrounds – they may be young or old, educated or not – but they all have something in common. They live in an atmosphere of domestic violence for so long that they form a habit of the so-called “acquired helplessness.” They don’t believe in their own power and ability to change the circumstances. “In most cases women can’t break the cycle of domestic violence by themselves. They need help from the state, society and NGOs. Our counselors can point women toward the nearest local crisis center if it exists, show them how to write a complaint for the police, and how to file a lawsuit. Sometimes we receive feedback: women call later and thank us. But the problem of domestic violence should be solved in more meaningful ways,” Matviyenko said.

Other experts in the field of crisis hotlines also believe that government support is crucial.

“It is necessary to create an interdepartmental committee for the development of existing crisis hotlines, which should include representatives of such services. Another important thing is the creation of national plans for the prevention of suicide, sexual violence and child abuse in accordance with recommendations from the World Health Organization – with a separate charter on the role of crisis hotlines,” Kamin said.
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