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German phone helplines at 'upper limits'

March 24, 2020

Home alone? Preoccupied with thoughts of coronavirus? It can help to reach for the telephone. Crisis helplines are in higher demand than usual.

Man holding phone
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Warmuth

Millions of people have been told to stay at home to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Direct contact is to be kept to a minimum. This increases some people's stress levels. Ruth Belzner says it can plunge some into an existential crisis. She runs a crisis hotline in the Bavarian city of Würzburg. Belzner says four of five calls at the moment are related to the coronavirus.

"If it keeps going this way, we won't have any calls that don't deal with Corona. Everybody is preoccupied with it, including myself, everyone is affected." Since restrictions on movement were imposed in Bavaria, Belzner and her 90 voluntary workers have been taking almost 50 percent more calls than usual. "We're at our upper limits," says the psychologist.

Suicide risk rises

Is it fear of death that is prompting people to reach for the phone? Cases of COVID-19-related deaths have been mounting in Germany too. Nine residents of a home in Würzburg died within a week as a result of an infection. "No," says Belzner. "Most callers are more afraid of loneliness than getting infected."

The restrictions now imposed throughout Germany can have a serious impact on people with mental health issues. Their usual network of support can't function. "If you're inclined to fret or prone to suffering anxiety and you are suddenly left all alone, it's a threatening prospect. Even people like us who don't have issues to start with are feeling the effects." This can increase the risk of suicide, says Belzner. "They have been left alone with their fears. Right now, the crisis hotline is all they've got."

Hotlines in numerous countries

There are 105 official crisis hotlines in Germany. They operate under the auspices of the Protestant or Catholic churches. Calls to 0800/111 0 111 or 0800/111 0 222 are free. There are similar services in other countries, to be found at https://www.ifotes.org/ or https://www.befrienders.org.

But what can Ruth Belzner and her colleagues do to dispel anxiety and loneliness in times of isolation?

Lit window behind tree
Phone helplines are always open, like this one in BerinImage: DW/V.Esipov

"We can start with a little bit of distraction and relief," says Belzner. "For many people, it's good to express their thoughts in the knowledge that somebody is listening and empathizing."

Sometimes, she says, the conversation can be steered toward everyday issues. "Such as the question: what are your plans for today, what are you making for dinner?"

'Optimistic outlook'

Belzner is glad that the crisis hotline has been classed as systemically relevant, meaning her colleagues can continue to do their work amid the coronavirus restrictions.

"At the moment, crisis hotlines are needed more urgently than ever," she says. And the volunteers can't work from home. "Our platform is subject to very extensive data protection regulations. Calls may only be taken at officially registered telephones."

Belzner adds that it is important for her colleagues' mental well-being that they can separate their work from their private lives.

Belzner says the current situation reminds her of May 1986, when the world gradually found out what had happened at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl: "You had this beautiful spring weather combined with an invisible, intangible threat. That's what it feels like for me now, too."

Belzner and the other crisis workers never bring religious issues up of their own accord.

"But some callers address the question of faith themselves, when they are asked what gives them hope or something they can hold onto," she says. And what is the rock in Belzner's life? "A fundamentally optimistic outlook. Life goes on. I have the feeling that God is with me somehow, no matter what." Trying to pass on this optimism in an intense telephone call is one of the big challenges.

If you are suffering from emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, seek professional help. You can find information on where to find help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https www.befrienders.org

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Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille