British Columbia

'Be gentle with yourself': Mental health phone lines see increase in calls

Call-takers staffing 24/7 mental health phone lines say they are speaking with more people than normal, with most wanting to talk through their anxieties over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crisis centre in Vancouver sees nearly double its daily calls in March, all COVID-19 related

Volunteers at the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C in Vancouver are available to talk 24/7. (Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C)

Call-takers staffing 24/7 mental health phone lines say they are speaking with more people than normal, with most wanting to talk through their anxieties over the COVID-19 pandemic.

"[COVID-19] is coming up on every single call," said Stacy Ashton, executive director for the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. in Vancouver. 

The Vancouver call centre operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and connects callers with volunteers trained to be empathetic and non-judgmental listeners.

The centre is one of 11 across the province. Callers can be routed to the centre in their area by dialling 310-6789 toll-free, from anywhere in B.C.

The new demand for an outlet to express worries about the pandemic shows how people are coping with uncertainty over daily life in B.C. whether that be about their health, jobs, families, finances or future.

"It's really normal to feel intense stress during these times," said Ashton. "You do not have to be alone, it's really important to reach out and connect with people."

The Vancouver centre, on average, receives about 110 calls per day. Through March, that average rose to 200 and Ashton said she doesn't expect call volumes to drop off. 

In Kelowna, call-takers said they have been on the phones an extra 1,500 minutes in March, with nearly 40 per cent of calls this week involving COVID-19.

There has also been a 140 per cent increase in high-risk calls, where people may express thoughts of suicide among other things, according to Ellen Boelcke, executive director of KCR Community Resources, which runs the Kelowna Crisis Line.

On Vancouver Island, operators have seen a six per cent increase in calls compared to this time last year, with 409 COVID-19 calls since January. The service, run by the Vancouver Island Crisis Society, is taking 100 calls a day on average.

Administrators behind Fraser Health's crisis line say they haven't seen the same jump, but that most calls — around 135 each day — involve the pandemic.

Shrunken distress rooms

Call centres aren't immune to changes forced by the pandemic to keep call-takers and other workers safe.

In Vancouver, calls are fielded from a distress centre that has 10 workstations. But due to physical distancing requirements, Ashton says they've reduced the number of workers to five per shift. 

The centre is having workers who staff the chat version of the line do so from home.

Vancouver's crisis centre has around 300 people who answer the phones and Ashton says so far, despite the changing work environment, call-takers are keeping up with demand.

It's also looking at enabling workers to take calls from home. The centre on Vancouver Island is already doing this with 13 of its workers.

'Rising to the challenge'

Other call centres say they too have changed their workplace practices and are leaning on their volunteers to keep up.

"We are rising to the challenge," wrote Elizabeth Newcombe, executive director for the Vancouver Island Crisis Society.

Ashton and others want people to know there is no barrier to call the line to talk to someone who is trained to listen with empathy, not judge, and not tell people what to do.

She says the average call lasts 12 minutes and most people hang up understanding that what they are feeling is normal and they can get through it.

"The ideal thing to do is just forgive yourself for it, be gentle with yourself," said Ashton.

Watch B.C. Premier John Horgan talk about anxiety and COVID-19:

B.C. Premier John Horgan says it’s going to take ‘extraordinary resilience from British Columbians to get through’ the COVID-19 pandemic. 1:02