Clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Lajman day hospital for severe mental disorders. She is a volunteer with the Asociación Barandilla’s Suicide Hotline
“Both professionally and as a human being I am prepared to give the best of myself and give back to society what it has given me”
TEXT: CRISTINA BISBAL
Although she had participated in specific initiatives such as soup kitchens, distributing toys to underprivileged children, and telephone counseling during the COVID-19 lockdown, Junibel had not really been involved in volunteering until almost six years ago, when, with 35 years of experience as a clinical psychologist, she decided to join a group of people from different fields related to mental health with the idea of supporting vulnerable groups. This is how the Suicide Hotline was founded in Spain.
The first step was to set up the Asociación Barandilla. While working there, they observed that suicide was still a taboo subject, despite the fact that it accounts for the death of some 4,000 people a year in Spain alone. With the intention of putting this issue on the political agenda, but also to help those who suffer from such strong negative thoughts that they want to commit suicide, the Suicide Hotline was set up, the first telephone-based therapeutic tool for preventing suicide in times of crisis.
CTell us about your volunteer work.
I am a listener and a coordinator for the Asociación Barandilla Suicide Hotline. This involves providing support, doing training, and holding clinical sessions with the other listeners to talk about the different calls and the feelings and emotions that go along with them, always looking for the best way to help the person who calls us in those moments of suffering, distress and loneliness faced with their situation and their thoughts.
ElThe goal of the Suicide Hotline is to help people who are suffering at specific times, but it goes beyond that, doesn’t it?
Indeed. We set ourselves another important task: to raise awareness of this public health problem and sensitize and educate society about it, through talks, conferences and events, such as the First Race against Suicide, and the demonstration on September 11, calling for a National Plan for Suicide Prevention. I believe that today we are a reference for the media in this matter. We are fighting to raise awareness among society, the political class and professionals of the fact that every day 11 people commit suicide and 200 attempt it. We can no longer look the other way.
How has the image of this problem evolved since you set up the Suicide Hotline four years ago?
In this time we have received more than 6000 calls from all over Spain, all dealt with by psychologists; we have been involved in several suicides in progress, mediated by police, firefighters and emergency services; and we have given hope of life to many of the people who have called us. And we are pleased because lately, many of these calls have been from parents, friends, partners, teachers, high school guidance counselors… who want information on how they should act because they have seen signs of suffering in a loved one.
The corporate world is also interested in this problem and that is why we are asked to give talks to employees. These mental health problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, in both adults and adolescents: uncertainty, anxiety, depression. We professionals know that if there was prevention, with more staff, psychologists and psychiatrists in the National Health Service, depression and suicides could be prevented.
Is your work very different from your volunteering?
Because of my profession and my work over the past 35 years, I am very aware of all aspects of mental illness and I get very involved in everything I do, so my volunteering at the association is closely linked to my professional work as a psychologist: supporting, listening, offering tools and understanding in times of great suffering when there is no way out. The main difference is that in my work I can follow up on the psycho-rehabilitation processes. In the association, however, help begins and ends with the call.
¿And how do you manage to combine volunteering with work and family life?
With work it can sometimes be difficult because I owe my efforts to my patients and my team, but I still manage to do it. And with my family there is no problem: they support me and take it as read. You have to remember that at this moment in my life I am able to do it and for me it is important. I am a person who is very committed to the most vulnerable and I believe that both professionally and as a human being I am prepared to give the best of myself and give back to society what it has given me. Helping in such difficult times is both necessary and satisfying.
¿Qué es lo mejWhat is the best thing about your work at the Suicide Hotline?
The best thing, without a doubt, is the relationship between the team members: we support each other and share the dream of doing something more. And when some of us get a little down, the others are there to encourage us and keep us going. But what really justifies our existence, the reason for volunteering, the reward, is when, at the end of a call, they thank you for being there; and even more so when, after some time, they call back to thank the person who answered their call for helping them still to be there.
And the worst part?
Finding out that we have no funds to do more things, like hiring psychologists. It is frustrating to have to search for money because public institutions (town councils, autonomous communities, government ministries) do nothing. And in the meantime, people continue to die… There are also moments of great anguish. I remember a call involving a suicide in progress. The person was calling so that someone would witness her death. While she was reading me a farewell letter to her family, I was able to get the phone number of her husband and her daughter who, at just 20 years of age, managed to arrive in time and get her almost unconscious mother to the hospital. Those were very hard times. There are also terrible calls from people with degenerative diseases, with depression, who do not want to keep living in suffering.
Children and adolescents also suffer from different disorders and do not know how to work on managing their emotions.
After the pandemic, we are in a particularly complicated moment, aren’t we?
Yes, we are. Some of the callers are desperate, because many people have no mental health follow-up, they don’t feel listened to, and appointments with the public health psychologist are in 2 or 3 months time, just for a 15 minute consultation. And most of them don’t have the resources to pay for a private psychologist… In hospital emergency rooms they don’t feel well cared for if they go in suffering a panic attack or with suicidal thoughts…
Children and adolescents are also suffering from various disorders and they don’t know how to work on managing their emotions. We should try to cultivate more kindness, gratitude, compassion and empathy in our society, because at given moments we can all be agents of change to help others.
What else is needed to help people?
There should be more psychologists in the Social Security system. People suffering from anguish, stress, and anxiety are prescribed an anxiolytic or an antidepressant and are dismissed until the next appointment. I would like to see prevention groups and follow-ups; with psychotherapy treatment or training in relaxation techniques, mindfulness or group therapy, the number of suicide attempts and deaths could be reduced.
Really, mental health is still undervalued…
We are at the back of the line in healthcare because the stigma and taboo still exists, but due to the pandemic mental health has hit the streets and society has come to understand that anyone can suffer from anxiety or depression. In Spain, in the public health system, there are six psychologists for every 100,000 inhabitants. In the rest of Europe, that figure rises to 18, in other words, three times as many.