UNICEF and the Philippine Red Cross step up mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic

The partnership will strengthen support mechanisms to help Filipinos deal with the psychological impact brought about by COVID-19

UNICEF Philippines
Philippine Red Cross responders, Bea and Justine, at their work station.
Philippine Red Cross/2020
16 September 2020

Perhaps more concerning than its physical toll, the psychological effect of the pandemic has become more debilitating and worrying as it continues to dominate every aspect of people’s lives.

“At the onset of the crisis…we believed that this pandemic could bring a lot of mental health concerns because of fear,” says Prednison Morales. A licensed social worker with the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), he oversees the national toll-free COVID-19 Hotline 1158 dedicated to providing callers with psychological first aid (PFA).

Lest people mistake the service for counseling, Pred is quick to say that his 14 volunteers trained in basic helping skills, not in counseling. The objective of PFA is to help a distressed caller calm down and address concerns. For the most part, the volunteers provide important information about COVID-19 which they believe helps people deal with the uncertainty.

The World Health Organization defines PFA as “humane, supportive and practical assistance to fellow human beings who recently suffered a serious stressor.” It involves giving people comfort and helping assess their needs and concerns.

Volunteer Bea Duhaylungsod, 26, a psychometrician, shares her experience listening to a caller for almost five hours. The caller was an Overseas Filipino Worker who had to come back after losing her job to the pandemic. Distraught over her situation, she needed to talk to someone.

“In that specific scenario, our role is to listen since we cannot really extend financial help to her,” Bea explains. “But for her, it was a great help to have someone she could talk to.”

"Experts say this [pandemic] will have a lasting effect on people especially since everyone’s sense of normalcy has been shattered."

Pred Morales
Philippine Red Cross responders, Pred and Jeremy
Philippine Red Cross/2020
(L-R) Pred Morales and Jeremy Santiago lead the team of volunteers at the COVID-19 Hotline 1158 of the Philippine Red Cross.

Another volunteer, 21-year-old psychometrician Justine Daganio, agrees that PFA is helpful and emphasizes that proper training is vital for the person on the other line to effectively handle the cases and avoid getting emotionally involved.

Volunteers are mostly from the ‘helping’ profession such as social work and other mental health-related fields. They undergo a 3-day training and must perform well in mock calls.

“We make sure that we personally check on our volunteers regularly,” says Jeremy Santiago, supervisor to the volunteers. They also give 3- to 4-hour sessions that help the volunteers learn ways to cope.

Pred’s team will soon be launching a Facebook-based counterpart to reach those who aren’t comfortable on the phone. It will utilize the peer system where people chat with avatars they can relate to such as a male, female, LGBTQI, and a child. The avatars will be operated by volunteers.

Philippine Red Cross Volunteers Bea and Justine
Philippine Red Cross/2020
(L-R) Volunteers Bea Duhaylungsod and Justine Daganio are licensed psychometricians who have been providing psychological first aid through the COVID-19 Hotline 1158 of the Philippine Red Cross.

In partnership with UNICEF Philippines, PRC will step up their mental health services to meet bigger challenges due to the prolonged pandemic such as the increasing cases of violence against children and suicide.

The partnership will strengthen support mechanisms through awareness campaigns and webinars for frontline workers to support their mental health, among others.

“The hotline has become multi-purpose,” Pred says, amused, but not entirely surprised, at how it has quickly evolved in just over five months. “Experts say this [pandemic] will have a lasting effect on people especially since everyone’s sense of normalcy has been shattered.”

UNICEF is providing funding support to the Philippine Red Cross COVID-19 Hotline for human resources, helpline volunteers and their training, as well as case management and follow-up care of their local chapters. As of 24 August, 9,790 helpline callers (5,624 males, 4,166 females) were provided with lifesaving information on mental health and other concerns.