​CBC News has learned that two Londoners have recently been left at loose ends after their calls to local support lines went unanswered. 

Kathleen and Donna, both aged 54, have requested that their last names be withheld due to privacy reasons.

I just want to talk to somebody. I don't want to go to the hospital and wait five hours. - Kathleen, 54

Kathleen said she experiences frequent anxiety attacks. She is also living with depression that she describes as involving "chest pains, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath."

Last week, she called Reach Out, a support line for people in London and Middlesex, Oxford and Elgin counties, and was repeatedly told that no operators were available.

"I know they say if you're having a crisis you can go to the hospital. Well it's like no, I just want to talk to somebody. I don't want to go to a hospital and wait five hours," said Kathleen.

For Donna, she has been feeling down because of an injured knee and a recent job loss.

On Monday, she called both the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Support Line and Reach Out, and like Kathleen, no one picked up. 

"The gist of it was that you've got to just keep trying and calling. I didn't call back again because really… how many times can you call?" said Donna.

Mental health lines: What's available

Reach Out and the CMHA Support Line are the two local help lines offered in London.

Reach Out

Reach Out is aimed at those experiencing a mental health or addiction-related crisis. It's run by Addiction Services of Thames Valley in partnership with CMHA London-Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford.

Karna Trentman, the coordinated access facilitator for Addiction Services Thames Valley, said that although she regrets what happened to Kathleen and Donna, she isn't surprised that the demand for crisis services sometimes outpaces the supply.

"I think we see increasing numbers in the hospitals, we see increasing numbers in all the services. People are really feeling overwhelmed," she said.

"The crisis centre is really busy [and] the support line is off the charts busy with people calling them. So it doesn't surprise me. There's a lot of need in the community and this is kind of what happens."

Karna Trentman

Karna Trentman said that the number of people experiencing mental illness means it isn't surprising that some callers have trouble getting through to Reach Out. (Submitted)

Trentman said that Reach Out has received about 15,000 calls and instant messages since it was established last August, and that the organization has responded to about 90 per cent of those.

Reach Out launched a first-year evaluation survey this month and Trentman said she's hoping to hear more about what the crisis line can do better.

"You can strive for excellence and you can't always reach perfection. So I think we're trying to make it as good as possible and really welcome to hearing where we can improve."

CMHA Support Line

In comparison to Reach Out, the CMHA Support Line is aimed at those who are experiencing milder depression or anxiety, or who may just be having a bad day. It's managed by CMHA London-Middlesex, and staffed by about two volunteers.

The Support Line is also a new service in London, according to Lori Hassall, who is the Director of Crisis and Short-Term Intervention Programs. The line was established last fall, and has received more calls than expected. 

"We get about 1,600 calls a month, and so we are looking at adding a third line in so that during those high volume times, calls don't go unanswered."

She said that the Support Line is looking for feedback on its services, and will be conducting an evaluation with students from the public health and data science programs at Western University.

For her part, Donna said she hopes improvements to both lines will come sooner, rather than later. 

"It's easy for anxiety to build and build when the phone doesn't get answered," she said.

Clarifications

  • ReachOut is run by Addiction Services of Thames Valley, and CMHA London-Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford. ConnexOntario is contracted to respond to calls.
    Dec 04, 2017 10:28 AM ET