More people calling mental health help line as pandemic drags on

The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington says calls to the organization’s mental health helpline have increased about 20 per cent in the last four weeks above pre-pandemic levels.  

Callers dealing with anxiety, family stress, problems with drugs and alcohol

Calls to a mental health helpline in Waterloo-Wellington have increased in June and July, as people struggle to deal with the ongoing mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via The Associated Press)

The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington says in the last four weeks, calls to the organization's mental health helpline have increased by about 20 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.  

From February to April this year, the organization received about 167 calls a day to its Here 24/7 helpline. 

Between mid-June and July, daily calls increased to around 190. In the last four weeks, there has been an average of over 200 calls every day, said the association.

While some people white-knuckled their way through the first few weeks of COVID-19, as time goes by it's getting harder to cope, the organization's executive director told CBC News.

"It's exhausting and it's stressful and it's discouraging and it's overwhelming," said Helen Fishburn, the association's executive director.

"There [are] only so many things you can juggle for so long before you get completely exhausted."

Fishburn said some callers are referred to in-house services, while others are referred to community partners.

KW Counselling also sees rise in calls

One of those partners, KW Counselling, saw an initial dip in demand when the state of emergency was declared in March but since then its wait list has increased by about 35 per cent relative to March this year, said spokesperson Scott Williams.

"The pandemic has increased the number and variety of stressors that everybody has been experiencing," said Williams. "There are people who may not have been experiencing mental health challenges before who now are, because of things the pandemic has exacerbated."

Rising anxiety and an uptick in drug and alcohol use are some of the problems that drive people to call, said Fishburn. With schools and now many summer camps closed, family stress is another issue, she said.

"The walls are starting to close in and people feel very claustrophobic," said Fishburn, who added that the recent easing of restrictions has helped alleviate some of that stress.

'We are worried'

At the same time, there are others who still feel intense fear about leaving their homes, she said.

"We are worried about those folks," said Fishburn.

"It's almost been like they're kind of living in a bunker, and we need to work with those people to get them back out into the real world again."

Dr. John Heintzman, head of psychiatry at Grand River Hospital, said the hospital's patients are also dealing with COVID-related stressors.

"[There's been] more family stress and conflict, fewer alternative safe spaces for people to go to get a break from each other, substance use concerns, less access to in-home services that are needed for some patients, and very limited community psychiatry," Heintzman said in an emailed statement to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Youth, seniors hit hard

Youth between 16 and 24 have had a hard time coping with the pandemic, said Helen Fishburn. Many seniors, she said, are also struggling. (

Fishburn said the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association has noticed isolation is hitting young people and seniors especially hard. 

People in their late teens and early twenties were often accustomed to seeing their friends all the time, and are struggling with orders to stay at home, she said.

Similarly, seniors who would have been active volunteers have been told to stay inside for their own safety, and have a hard time coping. 

"We've really seen a decline in those seniors," she said. 

Fishburn said the increased demand for help has meant longer wait times for certain programs and services. At KW Counselling, Williams said some people will have to wait up to six months, depending on their needs.

Still, Fishburn said help is out there. Many programs and workshops are available virtually, and as the province continues to reopen, Fishburn said more services are also being offered in-person. 

Anyone in need of help should make sure to reach out and ask for it, said Williams.

"Don't let the delay deter you from seeking help, because you will be helped eventually," he said.

If you need help, you can call Here 24/7 at 1-844-437-3247 or 519-821-3582.


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