Lockdown: Calls to mental health and suicide helplines have more than doubled

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Gallo Images/Getty Images
Gallo Images/Getty Images

The national coronavirus lockdown and its effects have led to an increase in depression, anxiety and suicide thoughts among South Africans.

This is evident from the sheer volume of calls received by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) since the beginning of the lockdown on 27 March.

Its operations director, Cassey Chambers, told News24 there had been a huge increase in calls.

"In fact, our calls have more than doubled since the beginning of the lockdown, and it's growing every single day.

"We've also seen an increase in calls to Childline as well as gender-based violence cases. So we've been monitoring our calls very closely to see which platforms and mechanisms people are accessing."

According to Chambers, the SADAG received an average of around 600 calls per day.

"We are now averaging between 1 200 and 1 400 incoming calls every day. That excludes all the people we follow up with, or patients we help to get admitted to hospitals, or responses to emails or text messages."

READ | Covid-19: Is ‘normal’ healthcare being crowded out?

Chambers said the number was expected to increase over the next few months as the impact of Covid-19 worsens.

People usually reached out to the SADAG based on a combination of issues because so many people were impacted in every aspect of their lives, she added.

"People are especially feeling anxious about the uncertainty of the current situation. What's going to happen? What can I do? Where am I going to get money? Am I still going to have a job? What about my child and schooling? These are some of the issues that are triggering a lot of people." 

The main issues are:

- Anxiety or panic: Feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, stressing about general things, not having answers or security.

- Financial worries: Pressure or stress relating to money, losing your job, not being able to pay the rent - the profound financial impact Covid-19 has had on people's financial security. 

- Depression: People have been triggered by the initial three-week lockdown, then the extension, then alert Level 4. 

"It's been seven weeks and we've seen a lot of patients relapse into depression, and those who had a mental health issue before are really battling to deal with all these additional stressors; and those that perhaps didn't have a mental health issue before have now been triggered," said Chambers.

READ | Lockdown: Gender-based violence call centre receives 120 000 calls in 3 weeks

"Another area of concern is the suicide rate. We're still getting calls from people who are incredibly suicidal and who have to be admitted.

"We also have patients who have stopped taking their medication during the lockdown and are now having manic episodes. 

"Also, all the mental health crises that we usually deal with are still happening. These issues were there before Covid-19, they're getting worse during Covid-19, and those who didn't experience problems before, are now being triggered a lot more." 

Withdrawal causing stress and anxiety

In addition, said Chambers, a lot of people who used to rely on cigarettes to cope with anxiety or stress were experiencing problems.

"They planned for three weeks and could perhaps have made provision for the extension, but now it's really become a problem because [not being able to smoke] increases anxiety and agitation. 

"In many cases, we've had people's family members contacting us. They are not always coping with a loved one who has had to go through withdrawal and they are really stressed because they want to help them and they don't know what to do."

Chambers added, however, one of the top five reasons for calls received related to substance abuse. 

What you should do if you need help

"Everyone who is affected by Covid-19 and the lockdown should ideally be doing something every day to help build resilience and implement strategies to look after their mental health so that we can prevent any crises or escalation. 

"For those who are not coping, it's really important that they must get some mental health treatment or help. We can't always fix something that is wrong ourselves. The same way we can't fix our diabetes or hypertension ourselves, we can't fix severe symptoms of anxiety or depression. 

"When you need help, the first step is to reach out - either to a family member or loved one, or to a mental health professional."

You can reach SADAG by calling its 24-hour helpline on 0800 456 789; for a suicidal emergency, contact 0800 567 567. 

Alternatively, call Childline on 08 000 55 555; or Lifeline on 0861 322 322. 

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