Helplines during Covid-19: ‘There is an awful lot more drinking going on at home’
Difficult domestic situations are now unbearable, say Childline, Samaritans and Women’s Aid
Childline helpline volunteer Donal Barrett. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times
With the country in lockdown and everyone spending much more time at home, vulnerable people are facing even more challenges than they normally would. Helplines remain open through the pandemic, even though they have lost a cohort of volunteers over 70 who have to stay at home.
While helplines offer varying supports, one commonality is that Covid-19 is the start of most calls they are receiving.
Donal Barrett and Andrea Keohane have been volunteering at Childline for 11 and two years respectively. Childline refers to itself as an “active listening service” rather than a helpline, although it’s probably fair to assume that callers view the service as a helpline. In March this year, there was an increase of 25 per cent in the number of calls to the service.
Barrett and Keohane both work across all three platforms: the free phoneline, text and webchat service, and are both based in Dublin.
“There is an awful lot more drinking going on at home,” Barrett reports. “I have done seven Christmas Days at Childline, when there is usually more drinking, but at least people could get out of the house. Now children can’t get away. They can’t go to school, and can’t go out that far.” Some callers have told him they are self-harming.
The new pandemic-specific theme that comes through on the contact he has with young people (Childline serves those up to the age of 18), is exams. “The big upset is the Leaving Cert. The uncertainty. It’s a major issue for our callers and it has become a major issue with their parents. They want a train track of dates when everything is going to happen – going back to school beforehand, when will the exam be, when will this be sorted.”
He is finding that: “Girls are missing their friends, and the camaraderie, and talking to friends. Boys seem to be dealing better with being on their own. Then there are difficulties dealing with social services they would have had contact with: lots of calls are going to voicemail. And we still have all the terrible things that were going on before. Abuse doesn’t go away in a pandemic.”
“Children who have difficult or abusive situations at home are suffering even more at the moment,” says Andrea Keohane. “These children no longer have the support network of a teacher at school or a sports club who might be keeping an eye out for them.”
She agrees that “exam stress” is proving a common theme. “Not seeing their friends every day. Being lonely. Fears about the exam. Not having a quiet place at home to study. Worrying about worrying their parents and siblings, because everyone is going through their own stress right now.”
The Samaritans have more than 2,300 volunteers at their 22 branches in Ireland. They receive on average 1,000 calls a day. Maggie Hayden has been volunteering for the Samaritans for 25 years. She is based in Dublin.
“Every call these days starts with Covid, and then the different ways that it is affecting people’s lives,” she says. “Relationships, work stress, family life. There are some dreadful family situations, where younger people have either lost their jobs or college is closed, and they have moved back home and are now closeted in the old family set up that feels very different to them now. They have lost structure and independence.”
What’s harder to define is what Hayden describes as the new “intensity” of the calls. “There is such intense distress and feelings, and such a need to talk,” she says. “It’s like it’s reflecting the fact that we have less outlets to do anything at the moment.”
We are hearing from a lot of frontline workers; about the stress of working, and the lack of protective equipment. About the experience of being with a person when they died
Some of the callers have ongoing mental-health problems, and have temporarily lost the support of centres they previously attended on a daily or weekly basis. “People have always found Sundays and bank holidays very hard, and that’s when we have got a lot of calls in the past, and now we are in an eternal bank holiday weekend. There is no structure to people’s days. People are time-rich, but it is not helping. Nobody is talking about the things they want to do when this is over. The calls are very much about the now.”
While a percentage of the population and the families they represent are working together to help each other through the pandemic, it’s not true of everyone. “There are some very good things happening in strong family units, but where things were already bad, they are now much worse,” she says. “The long-term consequences of the pandemic will be coming at us like a wave for a long time.”
Jonathan Nevill is director of the Cork branch of the Samaritans, and has been a volunteer for 12 years.
“Covid is exacerbating everything,” he says. “We are hearing from a lot of frontline workers; about the stress of working, and the lack of protective equipment. About the experience of being with a person when they died, but the family couldn’t be there with them.”
The Samaritans get a phonecall every minute, and they have noticed a surge in volume after the daily Covid-19 briefing that is carried on the news each evening. People are lonely, scared, angry. “There are people who are very lonely at home, and then there are the people whose homes are places where everyone is cooped up together, and there is fighting and violence.”
Financial worry and loneliness have always been prevalent in the calls the organisation has received.
He points out that volunteers are like frontline workers. Due to the fact that Samaritans volunteers – in common with Childline volunteers – need to work with a colleague for psychological support , they are still attending their offices. That necessitates travel and potential risk of exposure to Covid-19. One volunteer is coming from Sneem in Co Kerry to the Cork city centre office to help out.
“We have a lot of volunteers who are are over 70, and they are very disappointed that they can’t come to work,” he says. They are also getting calls from the cohort of society who are cocooning at home, and distressed at not being able to be out in society, or to feel useful. “People who are at home now and not usually at home, have time to think and they are alone with their demons.”
“People will die if this keeps going on,” Sarah Benson says bluntly. Benson, chief executive of the domestic violence service Women’s Aid, is referring not to deaths from coronavirus, but to the fact that an increased percentage of the service’s callers are talking about suicidal ideation. In addition, the abuse they are hearing about is perpetrated not only by partners, but in some cases by adult children who have returned home during the pandemic.
Linda Smith is the Helpline manager for Women’s Aid. “Women are calling us feeling suicidal,” she says. “They are telling us that their partners are drinking more. That they are not being allowed out of the house to shop or go for their walk. That when their partners go out shopping, that they don’t use gloves, they don’t wash their hands, that they deliberately cough all over them when they come back into the house.”
Smith, like the representatives from the other helpline and listening services, believes that as time goes on under lockdown, associated problems for those who use their services will continue to grow. “We don’t know where the end is for all this,” she says.
Childline is 1800 66 66 66 and at childline.ie
The Samaritans is 116 123 and samaritans.org
Women’s Aid is 1800 34 1 900 and womensaid.ie