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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge heard stories that "struck a chord" with them as they spoke with volunteers of a helpline for frontline workers

By Simon Perry
Updated January 15, 2021 05:30 PM
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Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
Prince William and Kate Middleton
| Credit: Kensington Palace

Kate Middleton and Prince William had a meaningful call with care workers who face head-on the grief and suffering felt by first responders during the COVID-19 crisis.

The royal couple recently spoke with counselors and bereavement support teams who help staff a helpline for those on the emergency frontline.

In a video chat with several social care professionals and emergency responders, William and Kate heard about the difficult calls that they are receiving. "The phrases and the words we hear time and time again are 'exhaustion,' 'relentless,' 'there's so much death, when is it going to finish,'" Tony Collins told the couple.

"That struck a chord," Collins tells PEOPLE.

Collins is a volunteer helpline call handler for Hospice UK's "Just B" phone service and is also CEO of North Yorkshire Hospice Care, (NYCC) . The phone line service has been receiving financial support from William and Kate's through their Royal Foundation's COVID-19 Response Fund.

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
Credit: Kensington Palace

Collins says the conversation on Wednesday began "around what sort of calls we were receiving and moved into the area of who had been making those calls – those in the emergency services who are struggling with so much to deal with. It also became a good conversation about what else needs to be done and what prevents people from accessing the support that's there."

He says that William showed how he was "absolutely passionate about driving forward further about mandatory emotional support in the workplace."

Collins adds, "We – being society – need to take responsibility to make sure people are okay. When people use the helplines and other procedures that are available to them, they have already taken a big step, but there are still an awful lot who won't take that step."

William and Kate have been at the forefront of supporting mental wellbeing for healthcare workers and other staffers during the pandemic, and set up Our Frontline online resources at the height of the first lockdown last spring.

The couple's video call came during a particularly difficult week for health workers and those who care for people in hospices, as most people are living through a third lockdown and the number who have died from COVID-19 has passed 87,000 in the U.K.

"I found them to be extremely approachable and very well-informed and clearly quite passionate about the subject of emotional wellbeing and mental health and resilience," Collins adds. "This may seem strange to say, but it felt like a very real conversation and it went into some depth and they seemed genuinely interested."

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge royal train tour
Kate Middleton and Prince William on the second day of their Royal Train tour.
| Credit: PA

Workers and counselors like Collins have faced mortality rates higher than ever during their working lives amid the pandemic. Many have also lost colleagues in the social care professions and among first responders.

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In addition to the financial support from the couple's Foundation, Collins adds that the "main form of help is the profile-raising and the endorsement – that's not only about making people aware of what's going on but making them aware that they need to check in on their own mental health and emotional wellbeing."

"I employ a number of staff on these calls and it's very motivating and encouraging for them to know that the couple is endorsing us. It is helpful," he says.

Just B provides confidential, free to access bereavement and wellbeing support related to anxiety, trauma and the impact of encountering a significant number of deaths, in addition to support for personal bereavement and loss. It operates between 8am-8pm, 365 days a year.

Also during the call, NHS staff and emergency responders spoke about their personal experiences with mental health and how services such as Just B have allowed them to cope better and begin to come to terms with their grief, the couple's office said.

The stories were so moving and extensive that the call ran over and lasted for well over an hour, Collins says.