British Columbia

Feeling blue in B.C. this holiday season? Call 310-6789 to connect with an empathetic listener

As the pandemic stretches into the Christmas holiday season, the lead psychiatrist for the largest health authority in the province says he expects more people than ever to reach out to crisis phone lines for support. Volunteers say they are ready to talk.

Crisis lines say more people have volunteered to support people by taking calls

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

As the pandemic stretches into the holiday season, the lead psychiatrist for the largest health authority in the province says he expects more people than ever to reach out for help to deal with loneliness, anxiety and other mental health issues.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, crisis lines around the province have been handling a higher than usual  number of calls from people struggling with their mental well-being.

Now as Christmas approaches, with provincial restrictions extended into January to limit gatherings, Dr. Anson Koo, the lead psychiatrist for the Fraser Health Authority says he's expecting the phones at the end of those lines to ring even more.

"I know many people were hoping for a reprieve, to be able to see family and loved ones so this is going to really exacerbate or worsen those feelings of loneliness and isolation. There's absolutely no doubt," he said.

Crisis lines across B.C. operate for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, connecting callers with staff or volunteers who are trained to be empathetic, non-judgmental listeners.

By calling the provincial toll-free number 310-6789 you will be connected with a call taker in your area.

Dr. Anson Koo is the chief psychiatrist with Fraser Health. (Fraser Health)

Koo says it's often the best first call someone struggling can make. "Sometimes you need that starting point to help you navigate through it," he said.

Koo says calls to Fraser Health's crisis line during the pandemic have increased 15 per cent, with 26,000 calls between April and the end of September. Twenty per cent of the calls involve the pandemic in some way, while 10 per cent of them have to do with social isolation.

Stacy Ashton, who oversees the Crisis Centre of B.C. in Vancouver, one of 11 crisis lines across the province, says it has seen a similar increase in demand since the start of the pandemic.

It handles the calls for the provincial crisis line along with 1-800-SUICIDE, and has 250 volunteers working shifts to cover the lines.

Ashton says she expects the pace to increase even more this month and into January.

"It's going to be very different this year. People are going to be much more isolated. They're going to have much more downtime when they're not around people, so yeah we're actually preparing for a very busy holiday season in terms of people reaching out and needing support," she said.

Stacy Ashton, executive director at Crisis Centre of B.C is pictured at their office in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Ashton says the centre has been nimble in finding ways to meet demand. For one, it's seen a huge influx of volunteers as people who want to do something tangible to help others through the pandemic step forward.

"People coming in right now are really wanting to be a part of the pandemic response," she said. "We're seen as one of the proactive things you can be doing to make a difference."

Donations have also been coming in to help the centre meet half of its $1.5 million budget.

In April, the province approved $5 million in extra spending to expand existing mental health services and launch new virtual programs.

Koo and Ashton say the extra money has helped connect more health-care workers with people who need support.

Ashton wants people in B.C. to know that crisis lines are prepared to hear from people who need to talk now.

"We are here. We're making sure we are having more people on the lines to be able to take the call," she said. "It's normal to feel sad, or lonely or angry because these are really difficult times. Don't be afraid to reach out."