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Halloween is done and the year-end holidays are on the horizon. In the past, this has been a difficult time for some in the foreign community, as they are away from their families. With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, even more people may be at risk of depression and anxiety.

This is where TELL comes in. The service launched in Japan in 1973 as an English-language counseling hotline, and has since grown to cover more than just the English-speaking community, with mental health clinics, internet counseling and outreach programs that aim to raise awareness about mental health in Japanese society as a whole.

This year has arguably provided the organization with its greatest test to date — the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world. TELL’s director, Vickie Skorji, says that the service has seen an unprecedented surge in calls to its lifeline during the pandemic..

“The toll that this pandemic is taking on people is really starting to show,” Skorji tells The Japan Times. “There has been a large increase in anxiety across the board as it has progressed. The most startling increase is the number of people talking about depression and thoughts of suicide.”

The lifeline service has managed to stay fully operational during the pandemic thanks to the efforts of its 120 volunteers and a swift shift to a work-from-home infrastructure. Yet, according to Skorji, “Trying to get the message out to everybody that we are here and you can still reach us has been our biggest challenge with the lifeline.”

One reason for this challenge was the need to stagger phone-in hours with chat service hours to manage full coverage. Many callers still call the lifeline assuming usual hours and have not checked the webpage or TELL’s social media accounts, which explain the changes.

“What I have been seeing is about 1,000 to 1,500 calls every month on our answering machine that we have not been able to get to,” says Skorji, explaining the outcomes of logistical difficulties caused by the pandemic and noting that this is a clear sign that call volume is way up.

Another effect of the pandemic is that it has put a dent in TELL’s ability to raise funds. The organization’s annual spring fundraiser, which is essential to help cover the costs of the lifeline, had to be delayed until the team could figure out how to hold something of equal magnitude online.

TELL eventually decided to break up the event into an online auction, a Zoom event and an online raffle, offering three ways of participating virtually, and all of which directly support TELL as a nonprofit charity organization.

The online Connoisseur’s Auction features hotel stays, restaurant courses, luxury items and, as it is a wine auction, lots of high-quality vino. The auction is currently live and accepting bids until Nov. 6.

Also on Nov. 6, starting at 7 p.m. and with an admission fee of ¥2,000, TELL will host the Savor the Hope Evening Program online via Zoom. The event looks to celebrate the successes the organization has seen this year, and will include a showcasing of the auction items; live music; a keynote interview with Mai Madigan, who will be discussing the challenges of gender diversity in Japan; and, finally, live picks of the raffle winners.

All donations go to the operations cost of the Lifeline. Full event details, tickets and all auction items can be viewed and bid for on the TELL auction website.

As the event title suggests, savoring the “hope” is the direct message that TELL has for Japan this year.

“In March the event had a different title, but we changed it due to the current situation,” Skorji says. “There has been so much trauma and constant media coverage about COVID-19, yet there is a lot of hope to be had. We need to hear the perspective that in the chaos there has been some amazing good and advancements made, not the least of which the topic of mental health being something we are all more sensitive to now,” referring to the twinge of anxiety every one of us has felt during the pandemic.

According to Skorji, the thing that makes this pandemic difficult is the prolonged sense of stress.

“When you have a disaster, we all have a traumatic stress response, but usually normality or safety returns relatively quickly,” she says. “The world is now nine months into this, and, with the sheer duration of this, mental health is a major concern. How resilient are people going to be?”

Skorji acknowledges that, since its peak in 2004, suicide levels in Japan have decreased thanks to government efforts. However, they still remain at near-crisis levels, with a spike seen in August.

“We’ve seen recently the actors that were taking their lives, and it just shows you that we have have got to break down this barrier,” Skorji says. “In Japan we know that we have a highly stressed workforce, low levels of equality for women and minorities, a major stigma and misunderstanding of what a mental health issue is, and, if you combine that with the added stress of COVID, there is cause for major concern.”

Of course, Skorji ends the conversation on a positive note, pointing out that the conversation around mental health has been much more normalized than it had been with past moments of crisis.

“Maybe we’re not getting to everyone, but my volunteers haven’t missed a shift,” she says. “Efforts like that are really hopeful, and that is what we want to be talking about. This is a good time to focus on this issue and break the stigma so we see real healing.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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