Over 7,800 call COVID helpline, isolation is chief problem

The majority of persons who called the 1772 hotline are elderly people struggling with loneliness

7,861 persons reached out to the 1772 helpline between March and September
7,861 persons reached out to the 1772 helpline between March and September

The majority of persons who called the 1772 hotline set up at the start of COVID-19, are elderly people struggling with loneliness, Agenzija Appogg’s service area leader Svetlana Buttigieg revealed with MaltaToday. 

Buttigieg said that while the majority of callers were the elderly, a considerable number of people from younger age brackets had also felt the need to reach out for help.  

On Monday, information given in parliament by Family Minister Michael Falzon disclosed that 7,861 persons had reached out to the 1772 helpline between March and September. 

“The majority of people needed a listening and empathic ear to share their daily problems with, since they either felt lonely because they were socially isolated or else felt lonely even if they lived in a house full of people but had nobody to listen and understand them,” Buttigieg said.

A spike in calls mirrored Malta’s partial lockdown early in the year after schools were shut down, and airports were closed. For many, their social life had come to a standstill.

The helpline is run by the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, the national welfare agency, and is aimed at providing support and help for those socially isolated from family friends, of any age, or who feel sad or anxious and want to share their thoughts with a professional.  “Any caller who does not wish to be referred to another service can remain anonymous. If a person wishes to be referred to another service, they would need to leave their details and give their verbal consent for the referral to be passed on,” Buttigieg said.

She said that all calls were treated as confidential and would only be passed on to other social work services, if the need arose, always with the consent of the caller. “If the caller manifests any intention of harming himself or third parties, then the call would need to be passed on to the relevant professionals who can further assist in the case, even without the consent of the caller.” 

Buttigieg said that while some may feel reluctant to share their problems and issues with family or friends because they feel judged, the helpline offered unbiased and non-judgmental support to any caller.

“We had people reaching out for help because they did not know how to adapt to this new reality, parents who did not know how to contain their children’s behaviour at home, couples having relationship issues since they were both working from home and had to change their whole routine, people worried about their elderly parents who still used to go out and about notwithstanding the guidelines from Health Authorities,” she said.

Buttigieg said that they also had callers with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, stating that the COVID-19 pandemic had been a setback for their mental health, and some also had suicidal issues. In those cases, Buttigieg said immediate help and support was provided through emergency services.

“We feel privileged that the public has chosen to put their trust in us during these stressful times,” she said. 

Commenting on the number of calls in five months, Buttigieg said that they were prepared and expected to receive a large number of calls during the pandemic since this was an extraordinary situation. “On a psychological and emotional level, when people are disrupted from their daily routine and experience events which are out of the ordinary, it is expected that one feels distressed.”

179 or 1772?

The main difference between the helplines is that helpline 179 takes calls of a more serious nature including child abuse, including over the internet, domestic violence, homeliness, substance abuse and gambling, usury, behavioural problems, relationship problems, suicide and so on.

 “1772 is indicated for people who need someone to listen to them, to their daily worries and struggles. For those who are lonely and wish to have a listening and empathic ear,” Buttigieg said. 

Feeling lonely? Loneliness Helpline is available on a 24/7 basis and it is free from landlines. Any person who feels that they need to speak to someone, who feels anxious or socially isolated from family and friends and/or who wants a referral to a social work service can phone on this helpline.