(Pictured here are LCC International University students who serve as core leaders of Lithuanian non-profit Gausus Gyvenimas)
In a year when the world has weathered trauma surrounding the global pandemic of COVID-19, quite surprisingly, new doors opened for me to share about the science of resilience in Lithuania. In 2017, a faith-based organization served as a means of introduction to a young minister from Pakistan named Robin Mubarik. Since our initial meeting we have only remained connected by way of social media. In early 2020, I noticed Robin had moved to Lithuania and was now pursuing a theology degree at LCC International University. He also began sharing about great needs in that country as Lithuania ranks as the world leader for suicide as the leading cause of death.
As Robin began sharing these challenges, it reminded me of how successfully resilience science has been embraced as a message of hope within rural Appalachia. In training hundreds of educators in Smyth, Buchanan, Dickinson and Lee counties of Virginia who work in communities faced by some of the highest national suicide rates for children among the ages 10-17, I was able to help them understand the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Interestingly, the Center for Disease Controls classifies these suicide deaths as “deaths by despair.” During the numerous presentations to these teachers, I pointed out that one of the greatest travesties of trauma is that it robs individuals of having hope for their future. I also knew that childhood trauma though it may be fact, it doesn’t have to be fate. Over an 18-month period that I worked in healthcare; I began to see entire school systems within southwest Virginia embrace principles for creating trauma sensitive schools. Recently I co-authored a blog in ACEs Connection with one of the School Superintendents who leads an amazing work in Smyth County Schools.
When Robin announced he was starting a non-profit Gausus Gyvenimas (Abundant life) in Lithuania that would work to address the underlying causes of suicide, I knew this team must include reducing the effects of ACEs as an upstream approach in their strategy. I reached out to connect in the spring and throughout the summer Robin and I had a few “facetime calls” where he was able to share with me the mission of the non-profit. I told him about the work I had been pioneering in rural Appalachia since 2014 and now on a national level as a member of the steering committee for the National Trauma Campaign. I shared with him that in only four years, addressing ACEs as a social determinant of health had become regionally accepted in the Appalachia Highlands largely due to using a rigorous three-step approach, Advocate, Educate and Collaborate. Based on the logic that I’d seen the healthcare system similarly address high rates of diabetes among those living within a rural community by educational programs to promote better nutrition and exercise or when working for police I witnessed crime reduced by 40% in a high crime neighborhood after implementing evidence-based policing strategies, I assured Robin; I felt certain the same thing could happen over time in Lithuania by implementing evidence-based resilience science.
Since our conversations this summer, I have now held two, three-hour virtual trainings for the core team of Gausus Gyvenimas and some of their community partners which represented five other European countries. Most recently I held a 90-minute coaching session with the core team as well. My first training was on the Core Principles of Using a Trauma Informed Approach which is the framework message I’ve included in making presentations to well over 25,000 professionals since 2015. Following this training, the team indicated they wanted to launch a mentoring program with university students and local high school students. So, for the second training I conducted an overview of understanding ACEs, what is trauma, how to identify trauma, how toxic stress derails brain development, and the universal prevalence of trauma, including statistics from Lithuania in order to make it more relevant. I also presented on how to build resilience. I shared a short video I often use in my trainings from the Center for Disease Controls called, We Can Prevent ACEs. Following the video, I explained what personal and community protective factors look like and how to grow them. I also included how to strengthen social/emotional skills. In our coaching session I covered the basics of mentoring followed by a time for Q&A.
Though this work is in its infancy stage in Lithuania, there is no doubt in my mind having spent time with these compassionate, determined and mission driven students, the story of the impact they will make in their country, is only beginning. In early December I invited them to co-author this blog with me and tell their story. The following is an account from the core team members of Gausus Gyvenimas at LLC International University who I am now honored to call my friends.
Hardships being faced in Lithuania
Lithuania is one of the three Baltic countries situated in the northeastern part of Europe. Though small compared to other European states, Lithuania boasts a rich history and breathtaking forests and seaside. Though the vast majority of the population are native Lithuanians, one-fifth of residents are from different nationalities and ethnicities, which brings dynamic to the country, and it can be especially felt in the larger cities.
Being so advanced in technology and innovation, the Baltic country has some deep social problems that give birth to a variety of issues, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, child maltreatment, and suicide. In Lithuania, home abuse is the highest reported crime after robbery. A third of the country's female population have experienced domestic abuse (Pankūnas, 2019). The problem of alcoholism might be connected to domestic abuse as in 2017 World Health Organization named Lithuania the most drinking country, where average alcohol consumption is higher by 1.6 times than in Europe. Child maltreatment and neglect are the results of high drinking rates in this country (Pankūnas, 2019).
Lithuania has been the leading European country in the number of suicides in the population. The probable causes of high suicide rates are the growth of GDP, demographics, substance abuse, and psychological traumas (Comunale, 2020). In recent years the rate of suicide somewhat decreased in Lithuania, however, it remains one of the primary reasons for death among healthy citizens (Pray, Cohen, Mäkinen, Värnik, & MacKellar, 2013). The majority of suicide victims are men. Though there have been many suicide prevention programs implemented in Lithuania, there is no sufficient way to measure their contribution to bringing positive change to the situation.
LCC International University and Gausus gyvenimas
In the summer of 1991 following the invitation of the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Lithuania Christian Fund alongside Canadian and American foundations established Lithuania Christian College, which later grew in size and internationality, which let them gain status as a university. Then Lithuania Christian College turned into an abbreviation of “LCC” and the institution became LCC International University. It is a Christian Liberal Arts university that provides education within a diverse learning community that transforms people for servant leadership.
Developing interest and caring hearts is one of the ways LCC International University encourages the servant leadership model in their students. As the topics of suicide, depression, and other mental health issues become increasingly common among young people in Lithuania, the desire to serve local people motivated five LCC students to bring positive change to the nation. The suicide-prevention organization (lith.) Gausus gyvenimas (Abundant Life) was founded in the summer of 2020 by Robin Mubarik, a student from LCC International University who wants to build a bridge between local organizations and Lithuanian citizens. He shared with local news: “The problem I see is not a lack of information, but the closeness of people. There is a stigma that you are weak if you admit to yourself that you need help. People are reluctant to seek help, even though there are so many different ways to find it. Suicide is a national problem and everyone must talk about it: schools, universities, churches, and businesses. When a person learns to receive emotional support, they realize that they can help others by simply listening and not judging” (Malūkaitė, 2020).
After coming to Lithuania from Pakistan, Robin found out that suicide is one of the largest issues in this country. That is why he decided to find ways to contribute to change in this area. He believes that by helping others, he will save himself as well. “Knowing that only a small part of our time can make a big impact on the lives of others is a joy”, says Robin (Delfi, 2020).
After Robin contacted the four other organization co-founders and shared the vision and the mission of the organization, they were waiting for the right time to act on it and bring positive change to the Lithuanian nation. Their love for God and people motivated the team to spend hours discussing, planning, and organizing the first projects. This non-governmental organization aims to raise awareness about mental health-related issues through arts and media. By cooperating with other organizations locally and worldwide, Gausus gyvenimas wants to break the stigma of topics that are considered inappropriate to be discussed in public.
The best day to present the organization to a wider audience was September 10th, which is the World's Suicide Prevention Day. Through art performances and informative sessions, the event left many impressed, and shortly after that, the team of volunteers grew rapidly. More and more people decided to join Gausus gyvenimas and the local Red Cross team. As for today, the NGO is a team of more than 30 people, ready to serve the community by bringing the message of hope. They are convinced: life is worth living.
As Lithuania is ranked as a country with a high number of suicides, Gausus gyvenimas wants to give hope to those who suffer and those who care about their loved ones. Their goal is to show that suicide can be avoided and it is not a shame to ask for psychological help. Life is valuable, wonderful and we can help one another to see that. The most important task is to break the stigma of being ashamed to ask for help. In the conversations that the team has had with the Lithuanian youth, most of them have mentioned that they were afraid to visit psychologists or other specialists because those around them may call them “freaks.” Therefore, the goal of the organization is to encourage young people that they can choose hope and show the examples of international organizations that are doing similar activities (Choose Klaipeda, 2020).
Partnerships with Gausus gyvenimas
In a few short months, Gausus gyvenimas partnered with the Red Cross Info center Klaipeda, QMissions, and Choose Klaipeda organizations. The Red Cross Info center Klaipeda is a Lithuanian organization that provides important information and advice to non-EU citizens about health, tax, education, the labor market, and other relevant issues. Another partner, QMissions, is based in Washington, US, and exists to create a platform for veterans to live out the calling God has put on their lives. They do it by providing administrative support, funding packages, and mentoring programs to help emerging veteran ministries. Another local organization, Choose Klaipeda, was formed by young people, youth organizations, and the city municipality for the common goal to empower youth.
(Image shared on Gausus Gyvenimas social media page following one of Becky's trainings)
Response to learning about ACEs
The opportunity to learn more about adverse childhood experiences being the causes and the roots of destructive social behavior was truly priceless. Becky Haas conducted two seminars for the extended Gausus gyvenimas team and the mentorship training for the core team.
The core team member Albina Golik from Ukraine shares her feedback on learning more about ACEs: “As a graduate of BA in Psychology, I have learned about the incredible power of early childhood experiences and the value they bring to the child’s development. Learning more about ACEs specifically was so meaningful for me. At first when Becky started describing all the ways parenting can go wrong and how much trauma parents can cause, honestly, I was a bit discouraged. However, the problem is not in us as people but in the trauma that was caused to us, which makes the message of ACEs - a hopeful message. When I first learned that though the initial scars caused by traumatic experiences cannot be eliminated, the positive experiences in a person's life can bring a possibility of healing. Finding out more about different programs and the projects that have been done in the US, gave us as a team a fresh glimpse and a vision of how we can implement those techniques.”
The Gausus gyvenimas networking manager, Ernest Kerul from Lithuania, says “before Becky's speech, I have heard that before children turn seven, taking care of their mental health is essential. Thanks to Becky, I found out about a new explanation that says that any negative childhood experience before the age of 18 can drastically affect an individual's life. Lithuanian citizens should learn more about it and minimize negative behavior or language towards youth.”
Gustavs Nolle, a Gausus gyvenimas volunteer from Latvia shares that “ACEs are incredibly dangerous and underestimated issues for the belonging society, so it is very important to deal with them properly by implementing support systems for people who have gone through ACEs. People with ACEs are more likely to commit suicide, crime, or other kinds of wrongdoings, but more essential it is to eliminate ACEs. I am not aware of the causes of such a high suicide rate in Lithuania, but if the immense industriousness can be addressed as an ACE then it would be necessary to implement emotional support systems at workplaces.” In her training, Becky explained that “trauma is like a wind – you do not see it, but you can see the consequences of it”. Everyone is familiar with the wind, but not everyone is hit so hard that it leaves scars for a long time.
Judita Sajauskaite, the Gausus gyvenimas volunteer from Lithuania, currently studying in the Netherlands, noticed that for some students bullying in school can be forgotten, but others are fighting with the consequences for life. She comments saying “we are so used to seeing maladaptive coping and self-destructive behavior, that we do not pay attention to it anymore. Just like the wind, trauma becomes invisible in our society.
“I learned a lot from the meetings with Becky Haas, but most importantly I learned this: instead of asking what is wrong with someone, we should ask what happened to him/her. This way we will have a chance to connect with that person. At the end, you can know all the theories and have read all the books, but without empathy, it’s just empty words. This idea gave me relief that there is something we can do. We can help someone by offering our time, acknowledging the feelings, and trying to understand what the person is going through. It can be just a simple act of kindness to the ones that surround us – maybe it’s the kid next door, or the co-worker, or the cashier of your favorite shop…
“In many cases when the trauma happens, there is nothing we can do, but the next step is in our hands. For example, recognizing signs of possible trauma in children's behavior. These signs can be a weakened immune system, stomach pain, headache, nightmares, avoidant behavior, disconnectedness, anger, and many other symptoms. Thus, I strongly believe that educating our society, especially youth workers and teachers about adverse childhood experiences can change our environment. Schools can become a safer and more welcoming place. By giving psychological tools we can reach those in need. Children with adverse experiences should not be overlooked and left alone to deal with the stress,” says Judita.
Karyna Karpishyna, a volunteer from Ukraine, from the training with Becky has learned that ACEs are similar among many nationalities, so even though most parts of Becky's presentations were addressing the people in the US, the information is still relevant for Lithuania, too. ACEs are often the explanation of different unusual or ‘wrong’ behavior among children and teenagers around other people and in different situations. Recognizing ACEs, acknowledging the existence of this issue, and educating people about what the ACEs are and how they influence children and teenagers can be helpful in major questions about the risks of depression, suicide, socialization difficulties, education, and jobs. ACEs as an issue is a part of the chain of events that may lead a person to thinking of a suicide and maybe even committing it. To break the chain and work with the ACEs may help to prevent future problems that are created with these experiences.
Paula Pūcīte from Latvia, Gausus gyvenimas Communications manager, admits that “learning about ACEs has been a valuable experience that will lay a theoretical foundation for Gausus gyvenimas’ further work. Though most of us would recognize that childhood is a crucial period when behavioral and emotional responses are formed, this training helped us to realize the real significance of childhood itself. ACEs not only affect a child's performance at school, but also the child’s relatability to others as an adult. The training on ACEs helped to gain more empathy toward people with a difficult character as too often we are quick to jump to conclusions without considering what is the real cause of the problem.”
The vision for bringing ACEs awareness to Lithuanian community
Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in Europe and one of the highest rates worldwide. Every year more than 600 people in this country decide to take their lives away. While the government is trying to address this issue in multiple ways, there surely is much more to be done. People are in desperate need of hope. Gausus gyvenimas believes that suicide can be prevented because there is hope for everyone who suffers. Also, the knowledge of how ACEs can transform and empower the community can be beneficial.
Once aware of how early memories can affect the rest of the life, it is easier to create effective helping strategies for people in Lithuania. Gausus gyvenimas team recognizes that the family should be a shelter where a child is protected from external threats and supported in loving and caring relationships. Unfortunately, the lack of knowledge and personal struggles are the main reasons why so many families fail to provide this safe shelter. Suicide, depression, and alcoholism are prevalent social issues in Lithuania that affect not only the suffering individual but the whole household. As an organization that seeks to support suffering individuals, we believe that it is necessary to educate society about the destructive effects of ACEs to encourage positive change. Gausus Gyvenimas is determined to raise awareness among adults about the ways childhood experiences shape the character of the child. Perhaps if more parents will be faced with the truth that they are responsible for the future of their children, they will be more willing to seek help and find solutions for their problems. Hopefully, there will be more and more families with healthy parents and loved children.
While the suicide issue prevails, we also acknowledge that there are deep spiritual and mental needs that call for attention. Gausus gyvenimas team aims to raise awareness about mental health-related issues and educate society about ways to take care of themselves. Our organization is addressing underlying issues that lead people to despair. We want to break the sequence of negative experiences before it goes too far. Mental health is as important as physical health, and if we learn to take it seriously then we can expect a decline in suicide rates in the future.
If you would like to know more about obtaining training or this partnership with Gausus Gyvenimas contact Becky Haas at Becky@beckyhaas.com If you would like to learn more about Gausus Gyvenimas contact GaususGyvenimas@gmail.com
Choose Klaipeda. (2020, September 09). Teatro aikštėje – pozityvios bangos. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://chooseklaipeda.eu/lt/2020/09/09/teatro-aiksteje-pozityvios-bangos/
Comunale, M. (2020, August 23). The persistently high rate of suicide in Lithuania. Retrieved from https://voxeu.org/article/persistently-high-rate-suicide-lithuania
Delfi. (2020, December 18). Savanorystės veidai: Ištiesti pagalbos ranką ne tik kitiems, bet ir sau. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.delfi.lt/partnerio-turinys/naujienos/savanorystes-veidai-istiesti-pagalbos-ranka-ne-tik-kitiems-bet-ir-sau.d?id=86036107
Malūkaitė, G. (2020, October 23). Kalbos barjeras - ne kliūtis organizuoti renginius. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://www.ve.lt/naujienos/ku...Bw4hvIAi2G9wp2ibEws8
Pankūnas, G. (2019, November 25). Domestic violence second most common crime in Lithuania. Retrieved from https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1119436/domestic-violence-second-most-common-crime-in-lithuania
Pray, L., Cohen,C., Mäkinen, I. H., Värnik, A., and MacKellar, F. L., (eds.) (2013). “Suicide in Eastern Europe, the CIS, and the Baltic Countries: Social and public health determinants. A foundation for designing interventions”, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Health and Global Change Unit, Laxenburg, Austria.