A child whispers in a barely audible voice “my father hurts me.”
A woman says “my husband has left. We had an argument, I’m totally confused.”
An old man suffers from loneliness after the death of his partner.
Such problems are typical of the roughly 45 million people who have been turned to the TelefonSeelsorge for advice and help since it was established in Berlin in 1956.
“The need is on the increase. Across the country the numbers are enormous,” says Annelie Bracke, who runs the Cologne branch of the organisation.
Around 8,000 volunteers help 188 full time employees across 105 offices 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.
The great majority of the centres are run by the Catholic and protestant churches.
Rainer Maria Woelki, cardinal the Catholic Church in Cologne, believes the service is indispensable.
“It is sad how many lonely people there are in our society,” he says.
“For the most part we hear about relationship problems inside the family or with a partner, and also about loneliness. But people also call to tell us about psychological or physical problems they are suffering from,” says Bracke.
Shame and pride increasingly common
After working for the service for 20 years, Bracke is damning in her assessment of societal change in Germany.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, social deprivation, fear of losing one’s job and poverty have risen. Connected to this shame and damaged pride have become more common themes in our conversations,” she says.
The 55-year-old explains that every conversation takes a different turn.
“There is no typical situation,” she says. “Our first job is to be an active listener, and to ask thought-out questions. Many people just want to talk, to feel understood.”
A 12-month study by The Catholic University of Applied Sciences of North Rhine – Westphalia up to June 2014 of 802,000 callers found that psychological illness or suicidal thoughts were central issues in calls, with a quarter of all callers saying they had psychological issues.
According to the director of the study, Martin Klein, the TelefonSeelsorge has taken on great importance for such people because psychological treatment is underfunded in Germany.
Among callers under the age of 29, meanwhile, a third expressed suicidal thoughts. The fact that one in every five of those between the ages of 10 and 14 said they were contemplating suicide is particular shocking.
“This shows that the TelefonSeelsorge is an important partner when it comes to child protection,” says Klein.
Trained and retrained
The counsellors who man the phones need to be well trained to deal with the difficult situations of the people they talk to.
Each one is trained and then constantly retrained, explains Bracke, adding that not everyone is suited to the role.
“You need to have sensitivity, patience and an understanding of your own boundaries. You need to be able to cope with a crisis and to have life experience of your own,” she explains.
The service also makes no attempt to proselytize, although it is prepared to talk about religious questions if callers ask.
“One time a terminally ill woman called, seeking support for herself and her husband whom she was leaving behind. I needed and wanted to be in the position to offer her a discussion on her beliefs and her personal spirituality,” Bracke says.