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Pandemic’s emotional damage ‘bigger than disease itself’

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COVID-19 has taken a major toll on the emotional well-being of our community. While some have developed a number of coping mechanisms, many continue to battle with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts brought on by the uncertainty it has brought to our lives.

“The emotional fallout caused by the pandemic is going to be bigger than the disease itself,” Robyn Salkow told the SA Jewish Report recently. “Based on what we’re seeing, people are going to be suffering emotionally from this for some time yet.”

Salkow is operations manager of the ChaiFM Helpline, a support and intervention line launched in August last year. Although the line has typically assisted people with a variety of issues, the pandemic caused a swell in calls from people across the country whose lives have been turned upside down.

“People who had anxiety or depression before COVID-19 have gone into more severe categories like paranoia,” Salkow says. “They are being diagnosed with the condition after becoming unbearably anxious about getting infected, touching things others may have touched, and going out of their homes.

“Whereas before someone may have said they were occasionally depressed, it has worsened to the point where they are asking how they can end it all because life isn’t worth living.”

According to Salkow, there has been a significant increase in calls to the helpline in terms of both volume and severity. The number of calls rose from 164 in April to 180 in June, with 192 in July. In August, there was a major leap to 244 calls. As for their severity, calls deemed severe or potentially life-threatening jumped from three in April to 55 in August.

“We were quite flabbergasted by the increase,” Salkow says. “The conditions we’re seeing are mainly depression and anxiety, but some cases are far more severe.”

LifeLine counselling services manager, Reabetsoe Noge, has had a similar experience.

“We’ve had 186 counselling calls and 350 requests for counselling sessions in the past month,” she says. “Our counsellors are booking shifts on a daily basis to meet the expectations of clients who are feeling distressed.”

Says Noge, “People have had the time to introspect under COVID-19, and have discovered the gaps in their lives. This prompts them to become depressed or even suicidal and, hopefully, to reach out to us. Underlying issues are being brought to the fore, triggering all sorts of serious emotional responses.”

LifeLine has been operating on the phone and over WhatsApp, fielding requests for help daily. It’s a similar situation at the ChaiFM Helpline, where 27 volunteers spend 18 hours a day taking calls and following up on previous callers who fall into the severe or moderately severe category.

Salkow says that follow-ups are made regularly where circumstances demand, including subsequent hospital admission or family intervention if needed. The line ensures that callers get the help they need, be it securing a bed at a medical institution, a referral, or simply a supportive conversation.

“Under the circumstances, it’s crucial that we do whatever we can to bring about a positive result to the best of our ability,” says Salkow. “We can’t just leave someone because they’re not getting out of bed in the morning. If they need help, something has to be done.”

Emergency medical-response service Hatzolah has also initiated a crisis response line to help people through the emotional upheaval of the pandemic.

“The crisis line is available to assist people with all the difficulties that COVID-19 has presented,” says social worker Sheri Hanson, who works in Hatzolah’s Crisis Response Unit. “The unit is there to help people air difficult feelings, and reduce the enormous sense of loss and isolation.”

Hanson says the crisis line is reflective of what has been happening globally on an emotional level.

“At first, people were feeling anxious about contracting COVID-19 and concerned about transmitting it to others, particularly if they had family members with high-risk comorbidities. In addition to the psychological stressors related to COVID-19, people have been feeling the financial stress that has arisen due to loss of jobs, lockdown, and businesses closing.

“As time has passed, this has become a real concern for those whose earnings have been negatively affected by the restrictions of COVID-19, which in turn has had an adverse effect on their mental health.”

Hanson says being confined to a home in difficult circumstances and with no relief from this reality has been challenging for many.

“For those in the community who have kept themselves away from others for fear of contracting COVID-19, the social isolation has been brutal and often a debilitating depression has set in,” she says. “COVID-19 has brought with it an enormous sense of uncertainty.

“This has increased already high levels of anxiety, as people have been unable to put a timeline to this new normal of masks, sanitisers, isolation, and economic stress.”

Salkow says that, contrary to initial expectations, the demographic of those who are typically using helplines has gone beyond the elderly and the immunocompromised.

“We accepted that the greatest demand would be from older people,” she says. “However, we’re seeing a demographic from as young as age six calling for support. Teens and varsity students have also been in a very bad way, with their academic careers and lives being disrupted.

“The younger generation is scared of what the future will hold and what sort of world they will be growing up in.”

Moving forward, Noge believes that people are developing coping mechanisms or becoming more willing to reach out for help.

“People took a knock emotionally, but I think that they are finding their feet,” she says. “The calls we get show us that people are feeling distressed, but that they are also more open to calling now. It seems some people are becoming more resilient.”

Nonetheless, Salkow maintains that until certainty is restored, the calls for help will remain constant.

“I don’t like to make predications, but I believe we will see intense pressure on mental health for the next four years at least,” she says. “The lack of certainty will cause emotional upheaval, but I’m hopeful that we can help people see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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