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Mental health hotline calls rose, changed during COVID-19 surges

The coronavirus pandemic has piled on new stressors even as safeguards like social distancing have removed customary supports.

Research in the journal Nature suggest mental help hotlines can provide much-needed help and offer a societal barometer for unseen, psychological pressure changes.

Anonymous data from 8 million calls in the U.S., Europe, China, Hong Kong, Israel and Lebanon shows calls peaked six weeks after the first COVID-19 outbreak, beating pre-pandemic volume by 35%.

Those calls mainly related to fears of infection and feelings of loneliness due to stay-at-home orders.

Calls driven by relationship issues, economic problems, violence and suicidal ideation dropped off, which authors say could mean pandemic issues supplanted, rather than worsened, existing anxieties.

Suicide-related calls rose under tighter containment policies and fell when income support was extended.

The pattern recurred in later waves.

Public health officials often struggle to track mental health during fast-moving events like those surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Data sources like mental health surveys and suicide statistics tend to be patchy and to lag well behind evolving circumstances.

The authors suggest data from mental help hotlines might help fill in some of those gaps.

Get the latest news on COVID-19 in Arizona

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.