BEIRUT: More than a third of calls to Lebanon’s first and only suicide prevention hotline originate from Beirut, according to data from the mental health NGO Embrace. From this, the organization has concluded that people outside the capital who are experiencing mental health issues are less likely to seek help from the Embrace Lifeline, launched in September 2017.
“We haven’t been able to reach into those rural areas,” co-founder Mia Atoui told The Daily Star Thursday, referring especially to the north, south and the Bekaa Valley.
So far in 2019, calls from Beirut represent 36 percent of the hotline’s total traffic. Three percent of callers were from the Bekaa Valley, 10 percent from north Lebanon and 10 percent from south Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Chouf and Aley, Mount Lebanon and Kesrouan-Jbeil represent 10, 8 and 7 percent respectively.
Atoui said that there was “no reason to believe” that the disparity in figures was down to anything other than a lack of outreach to these regions - something Embrace is planning to change by 2020.
“We have plans in the next few months to hold sessions in Tripoli ... in schools for students between 15 and 18 years old,” she said.
There will also be a session for parents in collaboration with the Tripoli Municipality. Atoui hopes to start from Tripoli, whose municipality expressed interest in the project, and to later expand into other areas.
Now, the hotline operates seven days a week, from noon until 2 a.m. But by 2020, Embrace hopes to provide a 24-hour service.
The plan is to increase the hotline’s operating time by three hours every three months, starting from January 2020, until it is running nonstop, Atoui said.
Suicides in 2019 are set to exceed the yearly average, according to Internal Security Forces data.
In Lebanon, the first half of 2019 has seen almost the same number of suicides expected for the whole year.
By mid-July 2019, a total of 110 had been recorded, according to the ISF’s figures. Registered suicides have averaged 141 annually for the past four years.
Although the organization relies on volunteers to take calls, training and awareness-raising activities all cost money.
The hotline does not receive funds from the Health Ministry, relying instead on corporate sponsorship, fundraising events such as gala dinners, and occasional donations from The Kamynu Trust, a funding body that offers support to organizations working on mental health, especially in the Arab world.
“Every year is different. This year has been more difficult than the previous year and, of course, it fluctuates with the economic situation of the country,” Atoui said.
Since the current model is “not sustainable over the long run,” Atoui expressed belief that providing other services would help take the hotline into the future. Her ideas include providing corporate training for companies wishing to incorporate mental health initiatives in the work place and training other NGOs on suicide prevention.
Atoui believes that, since the founding of Embrace, the issue of suicide in Lebanon has received greater media attention than ever before. This has resulted in a “slow and definite change,” she said, in the public perception of this previously taboo subject. “I think the public perception has changed in the last two years and it is because of the media. Embrace alone has done over 100 media interviews. People are more interested in reading about it,” Atoui said.
She has also noticed a spike in call numbers coinciding with advertising campaigns run by Embrace, especially on late-night television when people “find themselves lonely.”
But such attention can also play a negative role. This year has seen a number of suicides that have been heavily reported on, and the media’s handling has at times been “unfortunate,” in Atoui’s opinion.
In February, the self-immolation of George Zreik shocked Lebanon. The father set himself ablaze in front of his daughter’s school in Koura after struggling to pay for her education. More headlines followed later in the year, when a 15-year-old boy shot himself dead after failing the Brevet exam.
“Both deaths were associated in the media with a specific cause - George with the financial system, and the student with the harsh education system,” Atoui said.
But, according to Atoui, 90 percent of suicide victims are struggling with mental illness.
While it is true that financial problems, bullying at school and pressure from families can create an additional layer of pressure, she pointed out that the media chose to focus on these circumstantial factors and failed to mention mental illness at all.
Asked how the media could improve its coverage of suicide, Atoui suggested that it should be careful about what it published. After Zreik’s death, some local outlets used generic photographs of self-immolation - images that can be “very triggering” to those going through similar difficulty, she said.
“We got two [callers] after the death of George who said, ‘You know, what maybe this is the solution for my issues too,’” Atoui said.
Several callers said they were tempted to copy Zreik’s actions, because they believed their families would receive financial help.
Soon after Zreik’s death, Education Minister Akram Chehayeb pledged to cover the tuition fees of Zreik’s two children.
“Providing assistance after suicide should not be highlighted in the media, to dissuade people from emulating these acts,” Atoui said.
Atoui expressed belief that “in every article about these topics there should be a number for the [Embrace] hotline ... I try to do this after every interview I do.”
In September, Embrace will host “Walk with us into the dawn,” its fifth walk in memory of suicide victims. The 1-kilometer procession starts at 5 a.m. from Raouche rocks.
“It’s called ‘into dawn’ because the idea is to bring the topic of suicide out of the dark and into the light,” Atoui said.
With Embrace’s plans to train up to 40 new volunteers and expand into rural areas, Atoui believes it has never been more important to “get the word out there,” especially in areas outside the capital.
For the Embrace hotline, call 1564.