Beirut (AFP)

The phones of Lebanon’s only suicide hotline almost never stop ringing as people grow more desperate in the face of a financial crisis that has caused a mental health crisis.

In one appeal, a father says he is considering suicide because he is unable to feed his children, and in another, a recently homeless man says he has lost all hope.

There are dozens of such calls every day, and about 1,100 a month, in a country that has experienced an exodus of health professionals and shortages of drugs to treat anxiety, depression and psychosis. .

The number of people calling has more than doubled since last year and is expected to continue growing over the next few months as hopes dwindle for a battered population pushed to the brink by a seemingly endless succession of woes.

One morning this month, “we woke up at 5:30 am to a call from a 31-year-old homeless man” and we feel suicidal on Beirut’s East-West Bridge, said Mia Atoui, co-founder and vice-president of Embrace, the NGO that manages the hotline.

Before that, the organization received a call from a father living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley who felt suicidal because he had four children he could no longer afford to feed, she said. added.

“We get similar calls every day (…) the crisis has worsened considerably.”

Atoui said the increase in demand prompted the organization to expand hotline operations to 9 p.m. per day, up from 17, with the goal of reaching 24 hours in the coming months.

A free therapy clinic run by the organization is full until October, with more than 100 people on the waiting list.

The number of children calling has also increased, with people under the age of 18 accounting for 15% of callers in July, compared to less than 10% in previous months.

“A lot of people have given up hope,” Atoui said.

– Epidemic of loneliness –

Since the country’s financial crisis began in 2019, triggers for emotional distress have kept piling up, with the coronavirus pandemic and a monster explosion in the Port of Beirut last year, pushing the psyche of a nation at its limits.

Over the past four months, Lebanon has seen an even more difficult period, with dwindling foreign exchange reserves causing shortages of key imports, including fuel, medicine and bread, amid 24-hour power cuts. on 24.

Woman places a note on a post-it note in Embrace’s office, which says she receives about 1,100 calls per month ANWAR AMRO AFP

With hospitals shut down and schools threatened with closure, the Lebanese have fled the country in droves, leading to an epidemic of loneliness on top of the misery that now plagues daily life.

Fadi Maalouf, head of the psychiatry department at the prestigious American University of Beirut medical center, said he had seen an increase in the number of patients coming for treatment.

“We are definitely seeing more anxiety and depression, but also more advanced conditions,” he said.

The situation, Maalouf said, had been compounded by a double dilemma.

Most mental health specialists are gone, leaving patients to struggle to find expert help, while shortages of antidepressants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety drugs have halted treatment for many. .

“We have seen patients reduce their treatment to make their supply last longer, and they came to us in our outpatient clinic with their condition worsening,” said Maalouf.

“We have even seen patients who decided to stop their treatment and they became more seriously depressed, even suicidal, and they ended up in our emergency room,” he added.

“These are all patients who were previously stable.”

– ‘Psychological first aid’ –

With growing demand, clinical psychologist Nanar Iknadiossian is struggling to keep up.

The 29-year-old works 13 hours a day in consecutive sessions and always receives new referrals that she is not able to take care of.

The rate at which the crisis is worsening requires “very rapid therapeutic approaches focused on solutions,” she told AFP.

Mia Atoui, co-founder and vice-president of Embrace, an NGO that runs a suicide prevention hotline in Lebanon, says many people have lost hope
Mia Atoui, co-founder and vice-president of Embrace, an NGO that runs a suicide prevention hotline in Lebanon, says many people have lost hope ANWAR AMRO AFP

“It’s like psychological first aid … we’re just limiting the damage.”

But with Lebanon’s economic crisis pushing poverty rates to cover nearly 80 percent of the population, many cannot afford to feed themselves, let alone expert help.

“Last month we got a call from a widowed mother who has three children that she cannot afford to feed,” said Magalie Eid, a 23-year-old volunteer operator at Embrace.

“She was lost.”

Boushra, a 26-year-old volunteer operator who asked to be identified only by her first name for confidentiality reasons, said her job now looked like a “mission impossible”.

“We are supposed to give hope in a country where there is no hope.”