Callers to global helplines expressed similar pandemic concerns

Fear of infection. Loneliness. Concern for physical health.

As the coronavirus spread across borders in the early stages of the pandemic, calls to a global helpline showed striking similarities in mental health taxation – from China to Lebanon, from Finland to Slovenia.

An analysis of 8 million calls to helplines in 19 countries published in Nature on Wednesday reveals a collective response to unprecedented, uncertain times.

Callers ’concerns focused on fears of infection, loneliness, and physical health. Calls about relationship issues, financial problems, and suicide issues were generally less common than before the pandemic.

Swiss and German researchers looked at helplines in 14 European countries, the United States, China, Hong Kong, Israel and Lebanon. These included suicide prevention hotlines and crisis counseling lines.

“We were amazed at how similar the broad development of telephone call models looked across countries,” said Marius Brulhart, professor of economics at the University of Lausanne and lead author of the study.

Combining country-specific data during the first 12 weeks of the pandemic in 2020, researchers found that the number of calls peaked at six weeks, an increase of 35 percent over the same period in 2019.

Researchers will also analyze data until spring 2021 from the two largest helplines in France and Germany. Calling patterns in these two countries followed the rise and fall of infections and government restrictions, and the concerns raised were similar to those in the early stages of the pandemic.

Strict closure and social distance measures were combined with calls caused by fear, loneliness, and suicidal thinking or behavior. The government’s financial support for workers who lost their jobs and companies that lost customers had the opposite effect, “alleviated anxiety and mental health problems,” the researchers said.

Harvard mental health researcher Karestan Koenen said models that combine a reduction in calls to state aid are an important grasp for policymakers.

Analyzing helpline data is an “incredibly creative way to assess mental health during a pandemic,” in several countries, he said. In the United States, the use of emergency telephones has been strongly promoted throughout the pandemic, which may have expanded their use, Koenen pointed out.

Concerns raised in the calls echo the findings of studies showing pandemic-induced taxation on mental health, said Judith Bass, of Johns Hopkins ’Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The idea that fear was part of the early manifestations is both research-wise and logical,” Bass said. The virus “was unknown that no one had experienced before.”

Bass pointed out that the study did not include developing countries, such as African countries that have experienced Ebola and other cases of the disease. People in these countries may have reacted differently to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic than the countries included in the analysis, he said.

Still, the study showed how common helplines are around the world, Bass said, and they are available in more countries than the study included.

Brulhart said the individuals used in the study control the data in a way that made them available for academic research.

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The Department of Health and Science of the Associated Press receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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