Alberta sexual violence helpline saw 57% rise in calls during 1st month of pandemic

Calls to Alberta's sexual violence helpline have increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic.

It's important to reach out and check on friends and family right now, advocate says

Calls to Alberta's sexual violence helpline have increased during the pandemic. (Shutterstock)

Calls to Alberta's sexual violence helpline have increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Alberta's One Line saw a 57 per cent increase in calls during the first month of the pandemic and a 42 per cent increase during the first two months, a spokesperson for the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services said Wednesday.

"It spiked very quickly," said Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.

"This is a very challenging time for all of us regardless of our circumstances. But if you layer on someone who's living in an unsafe environment … that just adds on to the already existing stressors during a pandemic, which can be loss of job, uncertainty about the future, worry, anxiety, etc."

James said that while people aren't out and about at bars right now, that doesn't mean sexual violence isn't happening — and, in fact, many people are more at risk, as they are isolated at home and aren't in touch with close friends or even service workers, like hairstylists, who would see them regularly under normal circumstances.

She said it's important for loved ones to check in on people they know or suspect could be experiencing sexual or domestic abuse.

"The one thing that we can do as friends and as community members in general is to reach out to those folks often with very generic questions about how they're doing," she said.

She added that some people may be living with perpetrators and don't feel they can speak freely, so it is even more important to pay close attention to the words they say about their situation.

"We just have to listen and care and make sure that they know that they're supported and that you believe them and that you're there to help them in whatever way you can."

James said she fears there could be an explosion of people seeking support as pandemic restrictions begin to ease, as many clients don't have access to a computer or landline at home they can use to reach out for help.

She said anyone reading this article who may be thinking of reaching out to a helpline should know that they'll be met with a supportive and judgment-free voice on the other end of the phone.

"We're not here to make any reporting on their behalf, to intervene on their behalf. We want them to narrate their story … we will listen and we will tell them that we care and that we believe them and they can take whatever next steps they feel is appropriate and safe for them to do."

'When you're ready, there's a safe place to call'

May is Sexual Violence Awareness Month in Alberta, and the City of Calgary said Wednesday it has created a new online hub listing supports and resources available for those experiencing sexual or domestic violence.

In Calgary, police receive more than 18,000 calls per year related to domestic conflict, and experts have cautioned that number will almost certainly increase this year.

"COVID-19 can add extra stress on people, like unemployment or financial stress," an emailed release from the city reads. "People are in isolation and no longer have the same ways to connect in person with friends and family, which can make it harder to reach out for help when they need to.

"As a community, we need to let survivors of sexual violence know: We believe you and it's not your fault. When you're ready, there's a safe place to call."

The province has a 24-hour family violence information line at 310-1818, which provides anonymous help in more than 170 languages. 

Alberta's One Line for Sexual Violence is available to call or text at 1-866-403-8000, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.