Pandemic has doubled number of calls about sexual violence at central Alberta crisis line

The Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre's 24-hour helpline is busier than ever.

Noticeable increase in calls from men, calls about historical assaults

Albertans can text or call the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre's 24-hour help-line. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News)

CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary have teamed up to launch a pop-up Red Deer bureau to help us tell your stories from central Alberta. Reporter Heather Marcoux will bring you the news from Red Deer and the surrounding area. Story ideas and tips can be sent to heather.marcoux@cbc.ca.

Before COVID-19, a 24-hour helpline for Albertans affected by sexual violence received just a trickle of calls, texts and web chats in the late night or weekend hours.

Now 14 months into the pandemic, that trickle has become a flood, more than doubling the workload for staff and volunteers at the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre in Red Deer, said Erin Willmer, team leader of its crisis program. 

"When I first started, I actually went three months without getting a single contact," said Willmer, who began volunteering as a helpline monitor in 2017 when she was studying psychology at Red Deer College. She was hired after graduating in 2019.

For the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis, the volume of calls was normal, she said.

"Then in July, which is typically one of our slower months, it increased by about 240 per cent," said Willmer. "So that was kind of like that pinpoint of 'We're getting busy.'" 

The helpline is getting 150 to 180 contacts per month in 2021. (CBC News)

More need, more volunteers needed  

In 2019, the helpline received 80 to 90 contacts per month, from all over Alberta. That rose to between 100 and 120 in 2020.

Now in 2021, they're getting 150 to 180 contacts per month.

The increase in calls has created a need for more volunteers

Willmer's volunteer pool has gone from 70 to 130. The organization is also working with Red Deer College in a partnership that is keeping the helpline available to Albertans in need while also helping students get experience.  

According to Patricia Arango, the centre's executive director, the school was struggling to place students from social work and other disciplines in practicums during the pandemic. The Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre was happy to have them provide remote support on the helpline.

'People are at home now'

Arango said the pandemic has seen increases both in calls from men and calls about historical assaults, with Albertans reaching out for the first time to talk about events that happened years — even decades — ago. 

"One reason is the people are at home now," she said. "So is even if the abuser is not there, the post-traumatic stress is coming."

And for some, the abuser is still in the home — and is there more often as a result of the pandemic.

Crisis team lead Erin Wilmer (right) speaks with executive director Patricia Arango. (Heather Marcoux/CBC News)

The helpline works to get people referred to the right place, whether that's a hospital or a therapy appointment. A team of professionals supports the volunteers around the clock. 

"The people who have a post-traumatic stress or [are] under distress, they need someone more nights and weekends," said Arango. 

The 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline, a service of the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Centre, can be reached at 1-866-956-1099. It provides anonymous, confidential support as well as information and referrals for help.