When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit Gibraltar public health was the main concern, but as the days dragged on mental health and loneliness came to the fore for GibSams.

The charity runs a freephone helpline for anyone in Gibraltar who needs a safe space to chat anonymously and in the months of lockdown the need for this increased.

As GibSams Chairman Marielou Guerrero sits in her balcony for a chat she is acutely aware of the perils of loneliness, having self-isolated since the pandemic began.

Months at home with limited outside contact is enough for anyone to feel lonely, let alone stress over a virus and deep concern for loved ones.

Ms Guerrero underscored the Covid-19 lockdown has not taken problems away, but instead increased them for many in the local community and surprisingly the young.

Sometimes it’s better to feel lonely by yourself, than alone in a crowd, Ms Guerrero said.

She added that although some relished lockdown as the pressure for social interaction for those with anxiety was alleviated, it has also meant that as the lockdown eases it has been harder for them to return to normality.

Loneliness is just one of many issues GibSams deals with daily, but the need for isolation during this pandemic has exacerbated the issue and the charity’s messaging chatline was launched with perfect timing.

Every household in Gibraltar was locked at home and chatting over the phone in close quarters would have proved to be difficult for many.

“We have had an increase in calls, but the chat line has brought in a load of new callers,”

Ms Guerrero said.

“There are probably equal numbers of people ringing and texting. Whereas before those people would have possibly not got in touch.”

The chatline on the GibSams website is “completely confidential” and erases once the conversation is over, meaning no record is kept.

“We have to do it that way so people feel safe in talking to us,” Ms Guerrero said.

“Nobody knows except the two callers.”

Ms Guerrero encouraged people to ring “no matter” how small the problem, and people can ring has often as they wish.

“Don’t wait until things are really bad until you call,” she said.

Next week marks the start of GibSams annual campaign Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which starts on September 1.

The charity has the task of raising awareness with limited social interaction and in encouraging people to wear the colour green on their ‘Green Friday’ campaign day, with local sports teams also supporting the campaign.

As part of its campaign GibSams is recruiting more helpline listeners, and the charity needs at least 12 people to sign up.

GibSams will be holding a selection day on Saturday, September 19 for listening volunteers and then training over the next five Saturdays. Those aged over 18 years and wishing to become a listening volunteer can get in contact via: volunteer@gibsams.gi To man the phoneline and chat service during the day, GibSams needs at least 70 committed volunteers a week.

Ms Guerrero added if the chatline keeps increasing, there many be a need for more volunteers to man this service.

It has been almost three years since GibSams first launched and for Ms Guerrero inroads have been made over these three years.

Over the past three years the charity has worked hard to remove the stigma and encourage people to talk about their problems.

“I have seen the improvements that have been made, the culture is much more open and people are much more aware,” Ms Guerrero said.

“But yet there is still this perceived stigma. I think there is more perceived than actual stigma. They still don’t want to talk, especially young men.”

“It might feel they are going to look weak if they speak about it, but the fact is that their friends are there for them and they wouldn’t be stigmatised if they spoke.”

“There is still this perceived stigma that there is something wrong about being upset.

There isn’t there is a whole load of support for you including your friends.”

“We’ve come a long way, but not long enough.”

She described how young people had responded “magnificently” to GibSams, which encouraged her for the future.

“They have embraced it,” she said. “We can change the culture from the young people growing up.”

She believes that people are “far more aware” of the need to talk about their issues without stigma than they were three years ago before the charity started.

Call GibSams trained listening volunteers on 116123 from 6pm to midnight any day of the year.