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Suicide hotline sees sharp rise in calls amid COVID-19 pandemic

Director of group that operates emergency call center says most callers initially cited loneliness and health fears, but an increasing number are reporting financial distress

Illustrative picture of a lonely woman. (LSO photo/iStock/Getty images)
Illustrative picture of a lonely woman. (LSO photo/iStock/Getty images)

Calls by Israelis to crisis hotlines since March have grown by 30 percent over the same period last year, and there has been a sharp increase in reports of attempted suicide, according to the country’s main emotional aid organization.

A report last week by ERAN Emotional First Aid by Telephone & Internet said that since mid-March, when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown and stringent social distancing restrictions, there have been 143,000 calls to crisis hotlines.

The document, reported by Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, said 133,000 of the calls were to ERAN’s hotline, 7,000 were to the Sahar aid organization, and 3,000 were to NATAL – the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, which aids victims of terror and war.

Some 2,880 calls involved suicidal thoughts, the report said.

It added that the biggest increase in calls came during March and April, when the country was under a general lockdown that forced the closure of mental health clinics and psychiatric hospital wards.

As the lockdown ended in early May and the economy reopened, the spike slowed down, but it jumped again in June and July as the virus reemerged and forced partial lockdowns.

While at first, most of the calls dealt with loneliness, isolation and health fears, the second wave of calls has increasingly dealt with financial distress, said ERAN’s director general, David Koren.

David Koren, director general of Eran. (Courtesy)

“There are people whose problem these days is that they don’t know what will happen with them tomorrow, how they will pay their rent or their mortgage and buy food,” Koren told Zman Yisrael. “Others suddenly feel ‘superfluous,’ that they have nothing to do with themselves, that the business they invested in so completely has closed or their job no longer exists and there is no new job on the horizon.”

He also said the “policy of instilling fear” by some official bodies amid the pandemic has further contributed to feelings of anxiety.

“I understand the need for people to adhere to the instructions and avoid infection. But instilling fear, exaggerated threats about things that didn’t happen and won’t really occur, have a heavy mental cost,” Koren said.

According to ERAN, 60 percent of those who have called its hotline are women and 40% are under 40. Among those who called, 26% said they had feelings of loneliness, 59% cited anxiety or a sense of crisis and 15% said they had severe mental distress.

The group said it has expanded its operations during the coronavirus crisis, launching special hotlines for Arab Israelis, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Amharic speakers.

According to a report Wednesday in the Haaretz daily, there have been 70 people since May who called ERAN while attempting to commit suicide or expressing an intention to commit suicide due to financial distress. There were 10 such cases in all of 2019.

“Suicidality in an economic context wasn’t significant before the coronavirus,” Dr. Shiri Daniels, ERAN’s professional director, told the newspaper. “Since May this is the most significant factor leading people to suicide.”

Self-employed Israelis protest at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, calling for financial support from the Israeli government on July 11, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Daniels noted that research shows there is normally a drop in suicides during crises, as people are more focused on external problems and less on personal issues. She said, however, that the same research shows a rise in depression and suicides in the years after a crisis.

“It’s important to remember that the coronavirus crisis is unusual and therefore it’s hard to forecast its consequences,” Daniels said.

She also said there appeared to be a link between the rising number of young people calling and a greater number of people citing economic problems as a cause of distress.

“Continued economic harm and a long employment crisis could lead to a rise in suicide and in health and mental disorders,” she warned.

Despite the rise in hotline calls, ERAN has been unable to train more volunteers due to Health Ministry restrictions on gatherings, and reported it has 400 unfilled posts.

In March, Daniels told Kan TV that feelings of uncertainty and lack of control were exposing people to mental distress.

Dr Shiri Daniels. (Facebook)

It was important to assert control over information and not to be controlled by it, she advised — to choose when and for how long to listen to coronavirus-related news and information and to leave time to do things that are meaningful.

She recommended maintaining a routine while at home, getting up on time, getting dressed, eating regular meals and continuing with physical exercise.

She also suggested bringing nature into the home, saying, “It’s good for the immune system and for physical and mental health. Open the windows, let the sun come in. If you have plants or flowers, maybe get busy with them. If you have pets, stroke them. These are things that give us a feeling of connection. And don’t be alone. We can do this together. That’s what we’re here for.”

She said, “Far is the new near,” in that a remote conversation was no less meaningful than one face to face.

Asked how to explain the situation to small children, Daniels said the first step was for parents to be relaxed, because stress was immediately picked up on by children, even very small ones.

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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