Beirut blast: Lebanon’s crisis hotline witnesses surge in calls as anniversary nears

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Counselors at Lebanon’s crisis hotline say they are witnessing skyrocketing calls from patients suffering depression, anxiety and insomnia as they continue to relive the trauma from the massive Beirut port blast one year on – with some callers as young as nine years old.

Mental health wounds for those who lived through the August 4 explosion have resurfaced in recent months, with many yet to receive justice for the tragedy, Reve Romanos, the supervisor at the region’s only national suicide hotline, told Al Arabiya English.

“When an anniversary of a tragedy happens, it can be psychologically very distressing,” Embrace Lifeline’s supervisor said.

“People’s memories are coming back from the event and they are reliving the tragedy, causing them to experience sadness, anxiety, insomnia.”

“We get so many callers from people of all walks of life, calls for social assistance, grandparents who have already lived through many traumatic events and the blast has triggered these past memories.”

“Even young people – children as young as nine – are calling us – affected by their parent’s grief.”

Debris are seen in the port area after a blast in Beirut. (File photo: Reuters)
Debris are seen in the port area after a blast in Beirut. (File photo: Reuters)

Embrace expanded its mental health clinic after the explosion and still has a long waiting list.

At its seven-day-a-week hotline, the 120 counselors and operators have experienced a deluge of callers in recent weeks with many still experiencing lingering feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts, said Romanos.

“People lost their homes, their memories – even the street they grew up in. Grief, anger and hopelessness is everywhere.”

“What I think is hard for the Lebanese people is that often we as a country like to project a positive, resilient image of ourselves but in reality, we have suffered so much from the blast. We still all need a lot more phycological support.”

Demand for therapists has ballooned, making it hard to find treatment, especially since many qualified experts are leaving the country.

In June alone, Embrace received 1,063 calls for mental health support; many were in relation to the Beirut blast.

“I think it is easy to see the physical impact of the explosion, but it is so much harder to see the impact on mental health. But just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it does not exist.”

“Callers are not only suffering from the aftermath of this event, but they are also living at a time exacerbated by the country’s economic situation, the devaluation of the Lebanese dollar, high inflation and – of course – COVID-19.”

Relatives of victims of Beirut’s port blast hold their pictures as they rally in the Lebanese capital on July 4, 2021. (Anwar Amro/AFP)
Relatives of victims of Beirut’s port blast hold their pictures as they rally in the Lebanese capital on July 4, 2021. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

Romanos said the mental health situation is worsening as many people who are reliant on medication to alleviate mental health symptoms are no longer able to get their hands on the drugs they need.

Pharmacies in Lebanon began a strike in July over drug shortages as the destitute state struggles to pay subsidies for key imports.

The country is facing what the World Bank calls one of the world’s worst economic crises since the 1850s, and its foreign exchange reserves are rapidly depleting.

Drug importers have warned that their hundreds of drugs were running low and that the central bank had not paid suppliers abroad millions of dollars in contributions accrued under a subsidy scheme.

Romanos said this is impacting people who rely on medication to cope with the multiple blows that have hit the Middle Eastern country.

“It is a lot of things to happen in one country at one time,” she said. “And our call operators are trying to help all those that phone in – but many are living in the same situation as the callers.”

“Many people say they don’t feel safe in Lebanon anymore. They safe they have given up hope, that they can’t concentrate on the past or on the future.”

“More needs to be done on a country-wide wide basis to help this mental-health crisis we are facing. There is a constant shortage of hospital beds for mental health patients, there is the medication issue, and we need more mental health services – services that are affordable.”

“People are on the edge. They need help now.”

Embrace hotline can be reached on 1564 and operates seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 a.m.

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