The death toll and the economic impact that the coronavirus has exacted in recent months in Israel has dominated the headlines. The emotional impact of the pandemic may be somewhat more difficult to gauge, but the spike in calls to Eran, an organization that provides emotional support to callers to its hotline and via the internet, makes it apparent that an increasing number of those seeking its help are even driven to contemplate suicide.
Between May 1 and July 20 of last year, the organization received ten calls involving imminent risk of suicide due to the caller’s economic situation. This year during the same period that figure jumped to 70. Fully 33 percent of calls involving imminent suicide since May have come from callers in economic distress, making it the most prominent factor among callers at imminent risk, Dr. Shiri Daniels, Eran’s national professional director, said.
In cases of imminent suicide, Eran has police dispatched to locate the callers and prevent them from killing themselves. In one such call, a young woman on the line said she had just injured herself in a suicide attempt. She couldn’t pay the rent where she was living and her landlord was about to evict her.
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In March, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, she was put on unpaid leave and was told that it was temporary. But her leave had been repeatedly extended, and she was recently told that it was not clear when she would be able to return to the office.
She was shattered. She could return to her parents’ home, but she couldn’t stand the thought of being a burden on them, she said. “I’m in complete despair. I have no future,” she told the counselor from Eran who took her call.
The counselor alerted the police, who set out to find the woman while the counselor kept her on the line. The police located her and were able to save her life at the last moment.
Since June, according to the figures that are being made public here for the first time, on average three people a day try to commit suicide and at least one of the three reports being in serious economic straits.
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Eran has seen a steady increase in the number of callers expressing suicidal thoughts. In June there were 85 percent more suicide-related calls than before the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis – spiking to 884 cases in June compared to 480 in January and February. In July, which is not over yet, there have already been at least 491 such calls.
B. is one of those who has called Eran saying that he has considered ending his life. He is up in years and disabled and recently received word that his job was to be substantially scaled back.
“I’ve taken a lot of blows in my life. I always fall down but then get back up,” he told the counselor on the hotline. This time, he recounted, was different. “I don’t know if I can get up and I don’t know why I should.” He is continuing to receive support and assistance.
According to Daniels, the recent data are exceptional and are cause for concern. “From research, we know that in emergency situations, suicidal tendencies usually decrease, because people in distress are preoccupied with an external threat and less so with their internal distress. But there has been a significant increase in the rates of depression and suicidal tendencies even years after the emergency situation has passed. In this context, it’s important to remember when it comes to the coronavirus outbreak that this is an exceptional crisis and so it’s hard to predict.”
New Health Ministry figures also provide cause for concern. In May and June there were 65 deaths in which suicide was suspected and in which the police requested an autopsy – compared to 41 cases during the same period last year. The Health Ministry said that it doesn’t have suicide statistics so far for this year because it is still awaiting some autopsy results. But according to available information, between January and June 2020, there were 157 suspected suicides, compared to 134 during the first half of 2019.
Daniels believes that the real figures are higher. “There are many cases that look like accidents, in addition to suicides among the elderly, which are a group in which suicide is more prevalent but is highly underreported. They manage to stop eating or taking their medicines to commit a suicidal act that is not identified as such.”
Since March 8, when Eran opened a special phone line for callers experiencing emotional distress due to the coronavirus, it has received 145,000 calls. Its call volume in general has also burgeoned, from an average of 400 a day in normal times to 1,400 now. Sixty per percent of the callers are women.
There have been significant changes in the patterns of calls that Eran received in March and April, in the early stage of the pandemic, and in a second stage in May and June. The early calls dealt mainly with fear and anxiety, but now more callers are relating feelings of loneliness, severe psychological distress, tense relationships and domestic conflict.
But the most dramatic rise is in calls related to economic distress caused by the pandemic. In March and April, economic distress was mentioned by just 4 percent of callers expressing distress of various kinds, but the proportion increased to 12 percent of such calls from May into July (9,496 calls). Last year, by comparison, only 1 percent of calls to Eran involved job-related or economic distress.
The number of young adult callers has increased from 21 percent to 27 percent, while the number of elderly callers has dropped. There is a direct connection, Eran says, between the increase in the number of young adult callers and the economic distress that the country has been experiencing.
“The impact of the economic situation on people’s emotional well-being includes mood swings, nagging catastrophic thoughts, disruptions in sleep and eating patterns, going to the point of presenting a dangerous influence on the family atmosphere. The fear that the individual or the family will fall below the poverty line and fear of being a burden also exacerbate feelings of loneliness,” Daniels explained. “It’s important to understand that a career and professional fulfillment are central to our lives and an inseparable part of our identities.”
Symptoms of emotional distress under such circumstances include depression, anxiety, anger and harm to one’s self-image, Daniels said.
More callers to Eran are expressing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, counselors for the organization have reported. Callers say their dreams have been dashed. The self-employed speak of their life’s work shattered, and salaried employees who have been laid off fear becoming unemployable. Elderly parents express concern about their adult children due to the current uncertainties.
One caller said he owns a business that is now failing. People, he said, are acting like animals towards one another, and there’s no point to life any more. He said he had inflicted harm to himself in the past and had thoughts of doing so again.
Another caller was a woman who is dealing with emotional distress and a divorce. In normal times, she availed herself of social welfare services, but they were not available, she said, due to a social workers’ strike. “The coronavirus is uncontrollable and there won’t be a way back for me,” she lamented.
Another caller recounted how he was deep in debt and had not been able to find help. The contempt that he felt was as bad as the lack of assistance, he said, and all he did was worry and think about death.
Shortage of funds and volunteers
Last month Eran saw a 35 percent increase over June 2019 in calls relating to acts of violence. Among the other increases was a 113 percent in calls from formerly observant Israelis who had become secular, a 38 percent rise in calls from members of the LGBT community and a 50 percent increase from Holocaust survivors. There was a 20 percent jump in callers expressing loneliness and severe emotional distress.
Over the past several days, Eran has found it difficult to answer all the calls at peak calling times due to a shortage of counselors – who are volunteers. The organization needs some 400 additional volunteers, who are trained to do their jobs, but Health Ministry COVID-19 restrictions preclude gatherings in person of more than 10 people, and Eran is not conducting training sessions at the moment. Eran is also facing funding difficulties. Requests that it made to the Health Ministry at the beginning of the crisis for assistance have not yet received a response.