It has become a TV hit, a drama that has shattered taboos and given Ukraine’s teenagers the courage to open up about their lives.
Early Swallows tells stories about teenagers struggling with bullying and online harassment; they question their sexual identity and even consider taking their own lives. Issues like these are rarely dealt with in Ukraine in public.
Six million viewers watch the show on TV and millions more have seen it online.
A key part of the programme is a non-governmental mental health helpline detailed at the end of every episode. Within the first month of the drama going out, the number of calls to the helpline went up by 600%.
The series gave 16-year old Maxim from western Ukraine the encouragement he needed to come out as gay.
“First I talked to my father, then I told others. I don’t care if anyone doesn’t like my lifestyle,” he told the BBC. “Luckily, people around me didn’t really have a problem.”
Maxim says he knows many others who came out as a result of the TV series.
What’s the show about?
Early Swallows – Pershi Lastivky in Ukrainian – is based on the lives of teenagers in a secondary school class.
Five teens are subjected to online harassment from an anonymous user pretending to be their friend.
They struggle with various forms of bullying and lack parental support. One of the girls ends up taking her own life.
When one of the episodes covered a boy struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality, it was pretty much the first time that adolescent LGBT identity had been portrayed on Ukrainian TV.
Another storyline involves a teenage girl with alcoholic parents who has a speech disability.
What emerges is the sense that the more lonely a teenager feels, the more vulnerable they are to online harassment.
The series has already been hailed as a wake-up call for parents.
“I also played an online game where I had to fulfil a ‘friend’s’ tasks,” Maxim recalls. “He gave me different tasks that could have included ending own life at some point.
“But my real-life friend managed to save me by explaining possible consequences and I quit the game.”
How teenagers saw their issues finally being tackled
The programme’s producers, including scriptwriter Eugen Tunick, are pleased their creation has highlighted a problem that until now was overlooked and its victims neglected.
Psychologists working on the helpline were overwhelmed by the response to the series and they were disturbed by what they heard, according to La Strada-Ukraine, the organisation behind it.
One in three calls involves self-harm and a quarter are about violence. The rest deal with sexuality and attempts at taking one’s life.
For psychologist Alyona Kryvulayk, it was clear from the deluge of calls when the drama was first aired that teenagers saw their problems finally being recognised.
This was a sample of the many messages she received:
- “I have been self-harming for two years. I have no-one to talk to”
- “I don’t want to die, but life doesn’t make sense either”
- “I have had a bad relationship with my parents. I have been bullied at school. I had a friend but she betrayed me”
She was deeply shocked by the sheer scale of calls about self-harm.
How Ukraine is fighting school bullying
Bullying, however, is well known to be a systemic problem in Ukraine.
Unicef estimates it has one of highest rates of bullying among schoolchildren in Europe:
- Just under half of children aged 11 to 15 admit to bullying others
- Almost 70% of Ukrainian schoolchildren have either witnessed bullying or have been victims of it
- Only Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Romania surpass these numbers in Europe
- By comparison, the European country least troubled by bullying is Sweden, with a rate of 8%
A year ago Ukraine introduced fines for bullying at school. In 2019, 122 of the first 310 lawsuits were upheld by courts and many parents have had to pay for their children’s behaviour.
But making bullies pay has not been an easy task.
Children’s rights campaigners who have taken on individual schools complain they are often slow to spot a problem and when they do the response is inadequate.
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One campaigner, Alena Parfenova, even had her car set alight, an act she believes was in revenge for her activism.
“We demanded the dismissal of some school staff after they bullied children or covered up other people’s misconduct. After that I received threats,” she told the BBC.
But while the fight against bullying goes on, the TV drama has had concrete results in getting its message through.
Psychologist Alyona Kryvulayk describes how a teenage girl phoned the helpline to say she had made 15 attempts to end her life.
“As the oldest child in a large family she is totally lonely and neglected by her constantly busy parents,” she says.
Now, though, she has begun regular visits to a psychologist and, as far as the helpline organisers know, she has not tried to end her life again.
Find out more about self-harm and bullying
If you are affected by this story, it can help to talk to someone such as a mental health professional.
In the UK, these organisations may be able to help with bullying, and there are also groups that can help if you have been affected by self harm.
In Ukraine and much of the rest of Europe, the helpline for children and youth is contactable on 116 111.