“Hello, this is Embrace’s Life Line. How can I help you?” Since 8:30 am, on this Wednesday morning in October, 1564 has not stopped ringing. On the dashboard projected on the walls of this hotline dedicated to mental health, all the operator names appear in red, that is to say “busy”. As soon as a volunteer finishes their call, they take a fifteen-minute break and then their status reverts to green, i.e. “available”. “Some callers cry as soon as we answer. Others contact us several times a day”, whispers Sally, a 26-year-old operator, on a lunch break in an adjacent office.
The number 1564 is the only suicide prevention helpline in Lebanon. Created by the Lebanese NGO Embrace in 2018, it operates for twenty-one hours at a stretch, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m., and four operators take turns there every day. Its offices are located in a noisy shopping street in the Hamra district, nicknamed “The Champs-Elysées of Beirut”. Their cleanliness contrasts with the decrepit walls of the building. At the entrance, Embrace’s name hangs in white neon on a cobalt blue wall. A Post-it board displays dozens of messages of hope left by passing people. “Embrace, the safe place”, “I will follow you into the dark”, can we read.
“Our goal is for people to feel good when they come here. Animals are welcome and we have a rest room.”, explains Lea Zeinoun, Head of Partnerships at Embrace. In a fluorescent yellow sports jacket and sneakers, this 27-year-old Beirut is as frail as she is sporty. She runs after work every day. “A parenthesis in chaos”, she confides, her features tired. For two years, Embrace has become for her one of the rare havens of peace in a country in the midst of collapse. “We support each other, we listen to each other without judging each other. Many operators are part of the LGBTQI community and are found here”, she adds.
In one year, dramatic events have followed one another in Lebanon: repression of the revolutionary movement of “Thawra”, Covid-19 epidemic, explosions at the port of Beirut, economic crisis, political instability … The situation is so serious that the World Bank believes that Lebanon is going through one of the worst economic crises in the world since 1850. “People are extremely tired, frustrated. They can’t take it anymore, they don’t even have the strength to revolt.”, describes Lea.
“Each time, we think the worst is over, and then a new catastrophe arrives.”Lea Zeinoun, Head of Strategy at Embrace
Lately, the deadly shootings in the district of Tayouné, on the old demarcation line between Shiites and Christians during the civil war, were experienced as a shock. “They rekindled the traumas of the past. But at least when there was war people knew it was war. It was predictable. The worst part is the inability to know what tomorrow will be like. made”, laments Reve Romanos, sitting next to Lea. A psychologist, Reve would have gladly, like many others, left her country a long time ago if she had not been certain that she was still needed here.
This despair is felt directly within this listening service. In one year, the number of calls has exploded, from 500 calls received per month in 2020 to more than 1,500 this year. “After the explosion at the port, we received non-stop calls. Our offices at the time were blown up, but operators continued to work and receive calls.”, remembers Reve, heading towards the meeting room which opens onto a terrace lined with climbing plants. Even today, the images of the disaster remain frozen in people’s minds.
“Appellants have symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, some have panic attacks.”Reve Romanos, psychologist
To encourage residents not to isolate themselves, Embrace posted awareness videos on social media and organized marches. “In Lebanon, we don’t talk about mental health. For example, it is very taboo to say that someone has committed suicide”, illustrates Reve, citing the case of people who could not have been buried if the real cause of their death had been known. “Religions forbid suicide. So families say ‘the heart has stopped’ or the person has been ‘in a car accident’.”
Yet, according to the therapist, suicide should be a national cause. If the statistics evoked 171 suicides in 2019 in Lebanon, “the real number is definitely higher”, supports Reve. “This figure is based on statements, and as they are rare, it is underestimated”. According to the hotline data, “every two and a half days, a person commits suicide in Lebanon, and on average, there is a suicide attempt every six hours”, Lea completes.
A year ago, the young woman still knew what words to use to reassure callers. “I remember a girl devastated because her boyfriend had just got engaged to another. I found the words to reassure her.” But for a year, the calls of suicide have multiplied.
“Now people are calling because they want to die, they don’t have a job or money and everyone around them has gone abroad. It’s very hard to find something to to hang up.”Lea Zeinoun
“I remember a lady who called with her son in her arms. She said she wanted to kill herself with him. She didn’t understand why she had brought him into this world.”, Lea continues, her eyes sad. These testimonies are so difficult to hear that the young woman eventually stopped taking calls. “After a while it got too hard for me”, she breathes.
For her part, Reve has a story in mind that she will never forget. “Someone called because he was about to blow up. The power cuts were about to start and we only had thirty minutes of power before the call ended. Only half an hour for the save, in a way “, she says, imperturbable. Power cuts, very frequent with the crisis, also forced Embrace to close for a week in August. “There was no more fuel to fill the private generators”, says Reve.
With the crisis, the profile of callers has changed. In 2019, the majority of them were between 30 and 39 years old. A year later, they were between 18 and 34 years old. And Reve makes an even more distressing observation: “We receive more frequent calls from children. They are 9, 13, 14 years old”. Even if they are not able to understand exactly what is going on, they feel the anxieties and stress of adults, points out the psychologist.
“” I remember a child who called us because his 10 year old friend wanted to kill himself. “Review Romans
Beyond age, Embrace receives all those who can no longer be supported by the health system. The price of healthcare has exploded, as have medicines, mostly imported. A box of antidepressants is now worth 400,000 Lebanese pounds (225 euros according to the official conversion rate and 20 euros according to the black market rate, the latter being used on a daily basis), a fortune which represents more than half of the minimum wage. “Psychotic, borderline people no longer have their treatment and are in danger. And many cannot even be diagnosed.”, Reve worries.
Embrace makes sure to provide them with the necessary medication and care. “But at 2,000 euros per week of hospitalization, it’s very difficult to find a place”, continues the psychologist, recalling that the funds of the NGO, developed with the Ministry of Health, depend mainly on private donations. In 2020, Embrace was operating with 25 employees and around $ 300,000 in budget.
After the explosion at the port, and to extricate itself from a drained health system, Embrace allocated part of its funds to the creation of a mental health clinic. “The explosion was such a trauma that we needed a special center to meet the needs”, Lea continues. Located on the floor just above the center that receives calls, the brand new structure brings together two psychiatrists, three psychologists, a nurse, a social worker and students in training.
“We offer individual or group therapy, medication coverage or consultations. Everything is free.”Lea Zeinoun
Very quickly, requests for consultations poured in and the waiting list grew. Today, you have to wait two months before being received. In the waiting room, two teenagers, heads lowered on their phones, wait on benches without daring to look at each other. “Even if mental health is becoming less taboo, it is not yet easy to talk about it”Lea whispers as she walks past them.
By the end of the year, Embrace still expects to be able to grow and receive calls 24 hours a day. Today, callers are predominantly from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, and “we would like to reach the inhabitants of the countryside, or the elderly who do not have internet”, explains Reve.
Upstairs at 1564, Sally the operator is already ready to extend her time slots. She’ll take calls at night, she can’t find anymore “intense”, because it is “maybe a time when people think more”. And too bad if no way out of the crisis is emerging for the moment. “Even if there is only 1% hope left, we have to find it. What people need most of all is to talk.”