Listening saves lives

Listening saves lives

He was a doctor in a gown and was concerned with the question of why people take their own lives. Klaus Thomas founded the telephone counselling service in Germany. He would have turned 100 this year.

Throughout his life, Klaus Thomas was driven by one question above all others: Why do people take their own lives? He was convinced: "One can, indeed one must, stop suicides."For him, suicide was "an expression of an illness that can be cured." On 31. January he would have been 100 years old.

He embodied "the rare personal union of doctor, educator, psychologist and theologian," as the foreword to one of his many books says, which propelled him forward. To this day, he has saved the lives of countless people with suicidal intentions through the telephone counselling service he created.

Saving lives with telephone counselling

The researcher and Protestant pastor, whom the "Berliner Morgenpost" once described as a "scientist between Pentecostal enlightenment and medical pragmatism", focused specifically on the question of how suicide can be prevented. The main symptom of "all the despairing and life-weary, the depressive as well as the neurotic, is their loneliness and contact disorder, respectively," he wrote in his work "Handbook of Suicide Prevention". Preventing suicides, he said, meant letting a person in distress know "that he is not alone."

He wanted to convey this feeling to desperate people when he brought the telephone counselling service to Germany in 1956. The idea of this counseling was not new: Already in 1895, the Rev. Harry Warren established the world's first telephone chaplaincy and counselling for those tired of life in New York. In Europe, however, it established itself only after the Second World War. In London in 1953, a priest named West took out an ad and wrote, "Before you take your own life, give me a call!"

After catching Thomas, help for suicidal people meant first and foremost: "recognize the danger in time." He recruited the first 20 telephone chaplains at the "Paulinum" preaching school in East Berlin, where the theologian had a teaching assignment.

Providing pastoral care

At the heart of the training for the founder was a "central biblical, humanly warm and understanding pastoral care."Thomas founded the "arztliche Lebensmudenbetreuung Berlin," which included telephone counseling. At first, he saw a need only in his native West Berlin: the city had "the highest suicide rate in the world." Thomas suspected the cause was the high number of old people and the isolation of the city due to the building of the Wall in 1961.

Even as a scientist, Thomas has remained a theologian. This can be read out in many places of his works. During World War II, he was a parish and student pastor in Berlin, then a clinic pastor in Marburg, Hesse. In his book "Why continue to live?" he wrote on the task of pastoral care, it could "life-weary" awaken faith in "that God leads life according to a valid plan, which we do not always and not immediately understand." At the same time, the mental physician also dealt with the psychological problems of clergymen.

In the first four and a half years after opening his counseling center, twelve percent of those seeking help were church officials. "Of the 85 married, almost exclusively pastors and pastors' wives, 67 times must be spoken of a marital catastrophe," noted St. Thomas, reporting "prudishly brought up" pastors or clergymen with homosexual tendencies or "sickening professional conflicts."

Improve quality of life

The doctor, who has been married twice, used the data from the "suicidal care" to help advance suicide research. Within six years, he said, 10.000 advice-seekers came to a discussion, he summed up. 30.000 others had contacted the telephone counselling service during that time.

Klaus Thomas was also the main propagator of autogenic training, a relaxation technique that he believed could improve the quality of life. He died in 1992 and was buried in Berlin-Zehlendorf. There have already been two attempts to upgrade his grave as an honorary burial place. So far in vain.

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