Bucharest, Romania, March 13, 2020 - As the number of infections with coronavirus grows across Europe – and as a feeling of panic mounts among – a Romanian psychologist has stepped up to the plate by setting up a free telephone counseling service.
Besides the evident threat posed by the epidemic to the economy and health services, the coronavirus outbreak has struck fear into the collective psyche, leading to panic attacks and anxiety among populations exposed to a threat of unknown and uncertain magnitude.
"It all started at a personal level, when I decided to regularly call a number of people I care about to find out how they were doing and if they needed anything," Yolanda Cretescu told BIRN, explaining how she came up with the idea.
"I was calling family members, friends who live alone and even former patients of mine," added Cretescu, who last year co-founded a psychological assistance platform, depreHUB, and a helpline to deal with depression and anxiety, TelVerde.
"That’s how we decided to create a separate new helpline exclusively dedicated to the current situation," she said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak in Romania, where over 60 people have been diagnosed.
When the new helpline opened on Thursday, it already fielded around a hundred calls. The number of users is growing after local media reported about the helpline, which supplies advice in both Romanian and English and is open 24 hours a day.
Among those seeking help, Cretescu explained, are students who now feel cut off in Bucharest or other cities. "They are young and far away from their families and fear that this illness could kill their relatives," the psychologist said, noting that her callers also include foreign students stuck in Romania due to the epidemic.
"We also have people living by themselves who somehow have a fear that produces irrational thoughts and are scared of dying alone at home," she added, pointing out that most of those who call suffer from panic attacks and anxiety.
Users also include pensioners who feel especially vulnerable to the virus, and pregnant women worried about a possible infection of the fetus.
Others are minors growing up without parents who have their emigrated for work and people concerned about neighbours who have returned from Italy, where hundreds of thousands of Romanians work – and fear they might be contagious.
Using their professional expertise, Cretescu and 35 other psychologists and psychology students involved on a volunteering basis in the programme try to calm the callers, offering a rational perspective for the cause of their distress.
The possibility of losing jobs and income and being unable to pay debts and mortgages, or to keep providing for themselves or their families, is another widespread source of anxiety.
Worries about the shortages that started hitting Romanian supermarkets this week, and concern about potential selective treatment in hospital as coronavirus cases multiply, are the origin of other peoples’ agitation.
"We ask them what they need at the moment, and remind them that tomorrow the supermarkets will be supplied again," Cretescu said.
"In this way, we try to de-escalate irrational dangers, because things are not that bad: transports are still coming, re-stocking is being done."
While often irrational, people’s fears are understandable, the psychologist remarked. "It is normal that we feel anxiety in a time like this, because we are in an atypical situation and haven’t gone through something like this before," she said.
"But paroxysms of fear on top of everything will be useless and won’t help to protect us from the virus; it is important that we remain here and now, anchored in our reality," she maintained.
Cretescu said the practice of "self-isolation" recommended by experts in the present situation "could also be seen as an opportunity" – to do things they have not the chance to do in different circumstances.
"It is not a restriction on our freedom; we can still go to parks and speak with friends on the phone," Cretescu remarked, calling on everyone suffering from coronavirus anxiety to use the helpline "every time you feel a state of discomfort, when you can’t sleep, have pains, unease or restlessness or you can’t eat – because these are effects of anxiety".
If you are in Romania, you can get psychological counselling over anxiety provoked by the coronavirus epidemic dialing 0374456420. English and Romanian speaking depreHUB professionals are available 24 hours.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Monday, March 16, 2020
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