Stress? Fear of COVID-19? Therapists treating the vulnerable go online to help

By Menna A. Farouk

CAIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As the spread of coronavirus grows so too has people’s stress levels and anxieties, prompting businesses for good around the world to turn to technology to help the most vulnerable cope with mental health issues.

In Egypt, online therapy social enterprise Shezlong has offered 150,000 free sessions to help people cope with anxiety or depression or those suffering from “pseudo coronavirus” where people are convinced they have COVID-19 although they do not.

Hard Feelings, a Canadian social enterprise that aims to make therapy more accessible by offering low-cost counselling sessions, has closed its Toronto store and its counsellors will be speaking to clients online.

In Britain, a group of qualified therapists have set up a volunteering scheme called the Help Hub, offering free 20-minute Skype, FaceTime or telephone calls to vulnerable people in need of mental health support.

Meanwhile in the United States, online therapy platform Talkspace, a company with more than one million users, is donating a free month of therapy to 1,000 healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

“With negative news coming from media outlets about coronavirus, people are getting more stressed and panicked and more and more people will need psychological support,” Shezlong founder Ahmed Abu ElHaz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

About 1,500 free sessions have been given since the three-month initiative launched in March in Egypt, which has more than 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 20 deaths, according to data from the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource center.

Conducted via video conference, the sessions offer coping techniques for dealing with bad news, in a country where 3% of the population – or 8.2 million – suffer from anxiety and mood disorders, according to 2018 Egyptian health ministry data.

“We use cognitive behavioural therapy which teaches patients how to manage stress and anxiety and gives relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and positive self-talk,” said Mohamed el-Shami, a therapist working for Shezlong.

Professor of Psychology at Cairo University Gamal Freusar said 70% of Egyptians were now classified as “pseudo coronavirus” as they assume they have the virus and think they have the symptoms although they actually do not.

“About two-thirds of Egyptian society is now having high levels of anxiety and tension and this may cause many physical problems for them,” he said.

U.S. online therapy platform Talkspace said it was donating free therapy to healthcare workers.

“The mental health of our social workers, nurses, doctors and other health personnel is now paramount,” Talkspace CEO Oren Frank said in a statement.

(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk in Cairo, Additional reporting by Sarah Shearman in London, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Greece must urgently move vulnerable migrants from island camp

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria shout slogans in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece should urgently move children and other vulnerable migrants and refugees from its most overcrowded island camp to the mainland or to other EU countries for the sake of their mental and physical health, the MSF aid agency said on Monday.

The appeal from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came days after the governor of the region where the Moria camp is based said it should be closed next month unless authorities clean up “uncontrollable amounts of waste”.

MSF said it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in the camp, Greece’s biggest and home to some 9,000 migrants, a third of whom are children. It said many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

Other children suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks and anxiety, it said in a statement.

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures,” the agency said.

“It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries.”

The migrants in the camp, which is on the island of Lesbos, are housed in shipping containers and flimsy tents in conditions widely criticized as falling short of basic standards.

Greece is a gateway into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived since 2015 from Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and from Africa.

Athens, which exited the biggest bailout in economic history in August, is struggling to handle the thousands of refugees who are stranded on its islands.

It has criticized Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and some EU member states for being reluctant to share their burden.

Last week, 19 non-governmental organizations urged Greece to take action to alleviate the plight of refugees in all its island camps, not just Moria, to render them more fit for human habitation. The total number of migrants and refugees holed up in the island camps exceeds 17,000.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Gareth Jones)