How talking to people on the phone changed my life
With studies showing an alarming rise in mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic (1, 2), the Greek government, in collaboration with the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, took the initiative to launch the first national 24/7 helpline for psychological support for coronavirus. The high numbers of calls received especially during the first lockdown period -exceeding 30.000 calls per month- proved that this helpline was and still is extremely needed.
I’m really grateful to have been able to contribute to this important project and would like to share some of the lessons I learned during my short but very insightful experience there.
Lesson 1: There is still a lot to be done to overcome the stigma around mental illness.
We all feel vulnerable, sad and lonely at times. Negative feelings are only natural, especially during these unusual circumstances. Why are we so afraid of seeking help, not only from mental health professionals, but also from our loved ones? We think that we may become a burden, -after all, they have their own problems and responsibilities-, or that they will criticise us for being weak. It’s as if we have this misconception that to be accepted we have to be happy, productive and perfect. Anything else is causing us guilt and needs to be immediately hidden away. What we don’t realise is that if we actually shared our genuine feelings with each other, a weight would be lifted off our shoulders and we would finally understand that it’s not just us who feel this way. No one is alone in this.
Lesson 2: We all crave connection.
It’s easy to misunderstand someone who is calling you extremely angry, shouting at you or blaming you that you don’t have the right answers to their problems. It’s far more difficult to realise that their anger is not directed at you. It might be the way they have been treated all their lives and the only way they know how to connect with other human beings. There is a vulnerable side in all of us, anger might just be a disguise for unbearable pain, fear or grief. It’s our duty to help people connect with their vulnerable sides in a tolerable and helpful way, but also for us to connect with them and empathise with their pain, no matter how hard it might be. For a lot of people, real human connection is an unprecedented experience and can be life-changing.
Lesson 3: There is a limit to what you can do.
It’s frustrating sitting alone in the middle of the night, and receiving a call from someone who might be a victim of domestic violence (and can’t leave home due to strict lockdown measures), or from someone who is thinking about committing suicide. As if this is not enough, technical problems often come into the picture, with calls often dropping after half an hour or so, leaving you with no other option but to hope that the person will have the strength and patience to call again. But even if you have the adequate time to talk to them, you can never be sure that you said the right thing or that you assessed the situation correctly. What if the person didn’t call the SOS line that you told them to? What if you should have called the police straight away- even if they told you not to? Truth is you can never be sure. To be able to do this job without extreme psychological burden, it is crucial to accept that your responsibility is to give the person all the tools they need to help themselves. It’s up to them to use them or not.
Lesson 4: Just actively listening to someone can be incredibly helpful.
As a young psychologist, I often feel that if I don’t present to the individual practical ways of dealing with their problem, I haven’t really helped them. When I first started accepting calls, after listening to someone talking about their anxiety, I would often rush to speak and recommend a range of things they could do to feel better. I soon realised that this was not what they wanted. We are often so fed up with everyone telling us what to do, that all we need is someone to actually listen to us in a non-judgmental way and validate our feelings. When someone listens to us, we feel understood, recognised, we feel important. Just giving space to someone to unfold their feelings and showing them we understand them is one of the most important tools we have as psychologists and humans.
Lastly, let’s not forget that a crisis can be a change point, an opportunity -as the Chinese ideogram states. With experts warning that the COVID-19 pandemic poses the greatest danger to mental health since World War II (3) and the pandemic being far from close to its end, maybe it’s finally time to realise that there is no health without mental health and take action that can save lives.
Disclaimer: The article is a personal reflection and doesn’t necessarily represent the ideas of the helpline.
Wang C, Pan R, Wan X, Tan Y, Xu L, Ho CS, et al. (2020). Immediate psychological responses and associated factors during the initial stage of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic among the general population in China. Int J Environ Res Public Health; 17:1729. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17051729
Cullen, W., Gulati, G., & Kelly, B. D. (2020). Mental health in the Covid-19 pandemic. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 113(5), 311-312., https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcaa110
Covid ‘poses greatest threat to mental health since second World War’ (2020).The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/27/covid-poses-greatest-threat-to-mental-health-since-second-world-war
Mariza is a Trainee Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at West London NHS Trust and a graduate of UCL MSc Clinical Mental Health Sciences. She is passionate about de-stigmatising mental health problems and increasing access to psychological therapies for all people. She loves dancing, spending time with friends and slowing down and enjoying the present moment.