‘Worse than wartime’: Coronavirus takes toll on Israelis’ mental health

National hotline reports record number of calls, psychologists offer recommendations on ways to cope.

Workers wearing protective clothes disinfect a shop in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2020, as part of measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Workers wearing protective clothes disinfect a shop in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2020, as part of measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Stuck at home under stringent directives, a record number of Israelis are contacting ERAN, the country’s largest mental-health hotline, to cope with elevated anxiety and stress linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
Each day, more than 1,000 people – and rapidly rising – are calling or reaching out to the organization online to report health concerns or request counseling on life under quarantine.
“I’m at ERAN for 11 years, and we have never had this amount of calls,” Dr. Shiri Daniels, national director of counseling, told The Media Line. The number is far surpassing those seen even during wartime, she said.
“Calls rose 40 to 60 percent [during wartime], but we didn’t double our calls like now,” she said. “I think it’s going to get even worse regarding anxiety.
Israelis are typically seen as stoic during wars.
“History shows that [military operations] have a beginning and an end… but here we’re dealing with something you can’t see, that’s invisible and that people you love can [transmit to you], causing you harm,” Daniels said. “Your body itself can betray you.”
Others in Israel are turning to social media for support.
“In the past few days I’ve barely slept, and when I do manage to fall asleep, I somehow dream about coronavirus,” a man named Idan wrote in a public Facebook post Friday night. “All day long, thoughts of the virus run through my head without stop.”
Another user named Nurit complained of panic attacks.
“Two days ago, I reached the point where I started coughing and feeling as though I couldn’t breathe... It turned out to be anxiety and stress,” she wrote. “It’s not an easy situation: Anxiety can kill even before the coronavirus.”
On an online forum dedicated solely to COVID-19 updates, a woman named Orly asked others at 3 a.m. local time: “Who’s awake? I can’t sleep.” Hundreds responded, admitting that they, too, were unable to catch any shut-eye.
Daniels said healthcare personnel are not exempt, fearing for the safety of loved ones as they regularly come in contact with patients who have COVID-19. In general, though, the majority of those seeking help are aged 35 to 55 and suffering from information overload, she said.
“The information is controlling people instead of people controlling the information,” Daniels said. “They are glued to the media, social media [and] Internet, and they find it difficult to restrain themselves.”
Prof. Nilly Mor, a child psychologist affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said broken routines are particularly difficult for children and families.
“Everyone being at home together brings on a lot of family discord,” she told The Media Line. “Kids not being at school and not doing their regular things… we see a lot of children with meltdowns and difficulty sleeping.”
While some parents are turning to tele-therapy, Mor said remote options are not always available – or useful – for children, especially if they are young.
“With younger kids, treatments involve a lot of play and games and visual aids and activities, which are more difficult to transfer to online services,” she said.
So what tips do mental-health professionals have for those who need help?
Mor recommends that parents ensure they themselves are in a good mental state before trying to help others, and that they establish an active and diverse routine for their children to give their days structure. In addition, she suggests they monitor their children’s behavior and thoughts and explain to them the situation.
“The sense of being helpless in this situation can make things worse for children,” Mor said, emphasizing that while they should be encouraged to maintain social distance and wash their hands, they can still talk to friends and family over the phone.
Daniels recommends that adults, especially older people, maintain a daily routine that includes proper rest and healthy eating and remain active. Those suffering from anxiety should practice deep breathing, engage in creative activities, express their emotions to friends and loved ones and lower their news intake. 
“Being frightened is natural and to be expected,” Daniels said. “We have to accept the fear and not judge it, while using different coping mechanisms.”
She emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive outlook.
“It’s true that we don’t know this virus, but we have been through different crises in our lives and were able to deal with them,” Daniels said. “We will also be able to deal with this challenge and get stronger in the process.”
People in Israel seeking more information can call the ERAN hotline at 1201 or visit online at https://en.eran.org.il/.