Pandemic mental health toll 'incomparable' to past 'turmoil'

Pandemic of loneliness, anxiety: Crisis hotline says suicide calls have doubled

ERAN helpline says many of those calling now don’t have diagnosed mental health issues; Rivlin: We must treat the isolation as well as the virus

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Operators at an ERAN call center. (Courtesy of ERAN)
Operators at an ERAN call center. (Courtesy of ERAN)

An Israeli crisis hotline says it is receiving an unprecedented level of suicidal calls — and many of them are from people who did not have previously diagnosed mental health issues before the pandemic started.

The current lockdown has doubled the normal volume of suicidal calls to ERAN, a non-profit that is supported by the Health Ministry. Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, some 5,500 Israelis who are considering ending their lives have made contact.

“The people calling with these thoughts are different to the people who called in the past as they considered suicide,” said the organization’s CEO David Koren. “In the past we were talking to people with diagnosed mental health issues, but now a lot of them don’t come from this category.”

Koren spoke to The Times of Israel on Thursday, as President Reuven Rivlin visited one of ERAN’s call centers for a briefing on the state of mental health in Israel.

Rivlin responded to Koren’s revelations with concern.

“Mental health crises cross all sectors and parts of our society,” he said. “They get to everyone and hurt everyone. Right now, they are hurting us even more.

“This is a time of anxiety and uncertainty – in health, finances and society. And alongside the coronavirus pandemic, a pandemic of loneliness and isolation is developing and we must treat it.”

People sift through a dumpster filled with shoes in Tel Aviv on October 12 after a distraught shop owner, bankrupted by second virus lockdown, empties the contents of his store onto the sidewalk (Screencapture/Channel 13)

Koren said that Israelis are accustomed to living under pressure, including during wars and phases of terror, but the combination of hardships from the open-ended pandemic is unsettling people like never before and there is “no way to compare” its mental health impact to the past.

His operators, who take calls and online chats in several languages including Hebrew, Arabic and English, are seeing this daily, he said.

“The suicidal calls come from people who simply don’t see a future,” he commented. “No future in terms of their economic situation, their career, and their whole identity, which many people feel is simply getting lost due to the changes caused by the pandemic.”

Psychiatrists in Israel’s public health system say that while suicide figures aren’t available for recent months, as it takes time for authorities to determine the cause of death after fatalities, they are worried.

Mark Weiser, head of the psychiatric division at Sheba Medical Center (courtesy of Mark Weiser)

Discussing ERAN’s rise in calls with The Times of Israel, Mark Weiser, head of the psychiatric division at Sheba Medical Center, said: “We should be concerned and pay attention to this. With increased rates of depression, which we see for ourselves in the hospital, comes increased risk of suicide.

“In the hospital we are seeing a worsening of depression and anxiety symptoms among people with less severe psychiatric disorders. Some of these people are doing very badly, especially after being isolated for many months.”

Weiser additionally stated: “We’re also aware of data showing that severe economic depression increases rates of suicide, and the pandemic is obviously having a major economic impact.”

Koren said that not all callers planned to take their lives immediately, but an average of around three callers per day during the pandemic have been on the verge of suicide, and those who made contact have been helped to a point where they decided not to take immediate steps — even if this involved dispatching professionals to their homes.

In his briefing to Rivlin, he said that ERAN took 240,000 emergency calls since the pandemic started and 60% of them are about dealing with daily challenges, financial and employment problems, mental health and identity crises.

David Koren, CEO of ERAN (center) briefing President Reuven RIvlin (left) on October 28,2020 (Haim Zach/Israel Government Press Office)

He said that there has been a rise in inquiries about psychological treatment since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as a rise in the frequency of therapy sessions, and stated that 86% of inquiries come from people in crisis or emotional overload.

Koren and Rivlin also discussed a recent survey by the Ministry of Health, based on data from 108 heads of mental health day centers and clinics. It showed a 55% rise in inquiries to clinics of a suicidal nature, and found that 80% of the clinics reported deterioration in the pathology of those in long-term treatment.

Koren told The Times of Israel: “Our country has been in turmoil for years for different reasons, so we’re used to all sorts of trauma, but when it comes to this pandemic, there is no way to compare it to anything we had in the past.

“There’s a sense that everyone is in danger from the coronavirus, as you don’t know where it’ll come from, and as a result people should limit their interaction, which means we’re seeing both worry about the virus and huge amounts of distress and loneliness, all of which is intensified by the economic effects of what is happening.

“We’re talking to people who feel they have lost their identity and lost their future, because they don’t know what their work and economic situation will hold. The uncertainty is bringing many people to a state of depression.”

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