In Lebanon, volunteers speak up to battle suicide

Her trainers beating down on the pavement along Beirut’s seafront, Nour Safieddine, 24, cuts past strollers ambling in the evening sun. In her bright pink t-shirt, she is running to survive. “I run to carry on, so life can smile at me even if it made me cry — or in fact, not to die after the thought of suicide crept into my head,” the journalist and graduate student wrote recently. The sudden deaths of her sister and father around one year ago sent her into crippling depression, but running has helped pull her out.
In May, she bravely shared her own struggle with depression in a public social media post. She was surprised by the positive response.
“I felt like my experience was the experience of many people who hadn’t dared to speak up about what they were going through,” she said.
The first seven months of this year alone have seen 89 suicides in Lebanon, compared with 143 for all of 2017, according to Lebanon’s security forces.
This year’s rate amounts to roughly one suicide every two and a half days, but social norms in Lebanon may mean suicides are underreported.
“You have families who said, because of stigma, that he fell,” said Nour Kik, of the health ministry’s mental health programme.
To fight rising numbers, a group of mental health professionals and volunteers launched Lebanon’s first suicide prevention hotline in late 2017. The Embrace Lifeline has received 600 calls since November, said Omar Ghosn, a board member of the Embrace association behind it.
In an office in downtown Beirut, 45 volunteers work in shifts to receive phone calls from people in distress.
“Callers are women and men of all ages,” but teenagers especially rely on the service, said Sally, a hotline volunteer.
“I’ve had a lot of calls from elderly men,” said the 22-year-old psychology student. But vulnerable groups in Lebanon also include one million Syrian refugees who fled the seven-year war in their neighbouring homeland.
A 2014 World Health Organization report found 41 per cent of Syrian youth in Lebanon have sometimes or often contemplated suicide.
Fadi, a 37-year-old Syrian volunteer at the hotline, said he often feels callers have never had anyone empathise with them.
He talks them through their problems, though “sometimes, they just need someone to listen to them cry.” — AFP

Alice Hackman