Calls to mental health helpline rise with Covid-19 restrictions

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

After peaking at the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic – when restrictions were most stringent – and falling as these were loosened, the number of calls to mental health helpline 1770 rose again in August and September.

However, while the number of Covid-19 cases has been much higher in the second wave, the number of calls received was still far lower than in April, in the midst of a lockdown which brought much activity to a standstill.

The helpline was launched by the Richmond Foundation to provide free support to anyone experiencing mental health difficulties. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic’s arrival in Malta, it was expanded into a 24-hour helpline in April, in collaboration with the health authorities.

There had been 236 calls to the helpline between December and February, and the number of calls in March was a relatively low 111. But the expansion of the service in April appears to have increase awareness of it, and the professionals staffing the line received a staggering 1,033 calls that month, of which 56% were Covid-19 related.

The helpline received 427 calls in May, which saw the loosening of restrictions, and June and July – in which restrictions were reduced even further – saw just 154 and 179 calls being made respectively.

But a second wave of the pandemic reached Malta by the end of July, with the controversial organisation of large-scale social gatherings contributing to the spread of the disease, and the helpline ended up receiving 259 calls in August and 260 in September.

The data was presented in the annual Richmond Foundation conference last Thursday by the head of the University of Malta’s Department of Mental Health, Josianne Scerri. As stringent restrictions were being introduced, she explained, many calls were related to anxiety, depression and distress.

At the start of the pandemic, calls related to Covid-19 focused on various fears – rational or otherwise – a lack of support during quarantine, concerns about the vulnerable and about a worsening financial situation. The loss of routine also impacted on people’s wellbeing, while parents reported children who were more aggressive or who had become obsessed with contamination. A number of callers were also upset at others’ failure to observe Covid-19 regulations.

The situation in August – a Richmond Foundation survey had found most people believed mitigation measures were inadequate back then – and September was somewhat different, not least since the rise in calls was far less pronounced. But familiar fears – and concern about widespread violation of Covid-19 regulations – remained.

Parents reported ambivalence ahead of the reopening of schools: on one hand, they feared their children could get infected, but on the other hand, they were aware of the impact staying at home was having on their mental health.

Others, meanwhile, reported pressure to report to work even though they were on quarantine, while those who tested positive for Covid-19 dreaded blame by colleagues.