'A time of anxiety for everyone': Calls to London crisis line jump by 50 per cent

The London-area Canadian Mental Health Association is receiving a record number of calls from people feeling the stress of COVID-19. The crisis line saw at 50 percent increase in calls in the last three weeks.

Health worries, financial woes and social isolation causing problems

On the weekend, the average number of calls to the London-area Canadian Mental Health Association crisis line was more than thirty per hour. (CBC)

The Canadian Mental Health Association's London-area help lines are receiving a record number of calls from people feeling the stress of COVID-19.

Reach Out, a mental health and addictions crisis line, had a 50 percent  jump in calls in the last three weeks, according to Lori Hassall, director of crisis and short-term interventions for CMHA's Middlesex Branch. On the weekend, the average number of calls was more than thirty per hour.

"It's a time of anxiety for everyone," said Hassall. "I'm glad people are calling."

Most people calling the line, open 24/7, are concerned about COVID-19, their own health and their family's health. Staff answering the line, a partnership between Addictions Services of Thames Valley and the Canadian Mental Health Associations of Oxford, Elgin and Middlesex, are trained in mental health and addictions.

Calls to the support line, staffed by volunteers willing to lend an ear to anyone feeling sad or lonely, are up 43 percent in the last three weeks.

"I'm glad people are calling," said Lori Hassall, director of crisis and short-term interventions for CMHA Middlesex. (Submitted photo)

COVID-19 stress

"Most people have nights they haven't slept well and times they're worried, said Hassall.

She wants people to know those feelings are normal.

"This is something we haven't experienced before," she said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down schools, the economy and everyday life in recent weeks, forcing people indoors.

Some callers are voicing their worries about being laid off and what the future holds. Others are concerned about their children's education and how to keep them occupied.

"It's a real mixed bag," she said.

The close quarters are also causing tension. In households where conflict between parents and teenagers already existed, being in the home 24/7 is causing increased problems. Many callers are phoning about substance abuse by a family member, such as a partner, son or daughter who may be drinking more than they previously realized.

Hassall said two vulnerable groups are facing increased risk factors right now: people with pre-existing mental health issues and those living in domestic violence.

"Social isolation has been a big theme as well," said Hassall.

Volunteers lost when schools closed

At the same time as call volume ramped up, the association lost 70 percent of its support line volunteers: college and university students who returned to their home communities when school shut down.

It's been a bit of a whirlwind over the last few weeks," said Hassall.

More than 40 medical students volunteered to fill the gap, received training and are now answering phones

Hassall said they're seeing fewer walk-ins at the Mental Health & Addictions Crisis Centre on Huron St., and most group programs have been postponed. This freed up some staff to start taking calls.

Health care professionals who are working from home or laid off, such as nurses and psychotherapists, have stepped up to volunteer. The association's IT department quickly set up systems to let them log in and answer calls remotely.

"So that's been pretty exciting," said Hassall, adding that she's seeing new challenges met with creativity and innovation.

Feeling stressed? Hassall has some tips

Hassall expects the calls to continue, and is telling people who can't get through to be patient. If you leave a message for the crisis line, staff will aim to call back within 90 minutes. In the meantime, she has some advice:

  • Remember a time in your life when you experienced something really difficult. What were your coping strategies then? It could be washing the car, organizing your apartment, being in nature, chatting on the phone, knitting or cooking. Try to work those into your routine
  • Challenge your own worries. Not all thoughts are facts and it's easy to catastrophize.
  • Building and sticking to a routine can be helpful, especially for people who are laid off or working from home.
  • Try to add structure to your day, so you feel you've accomplished something. Try to get out of your pyjamas and take a shower. Even walking a dog or cleaning a drawer can help.
  • Connect with someone. Seek out people who are supportive.
  • Exercise and eat healthy, pay attention to your sleep. Pay attention to alcohol and substance abuse.
  • Be conscious of amount of time spent consuming the news or following COVID-19 stories on social media. Maybe check in the morning and early evening only. Having the news on in the background day and night "can be especially overwhelming for kids."
  • Look for things that can bring joy to your life, such as watching a Netflix series or reaching out to a friend who jokes a lot. Look for ways to weave lightness and joy into your day.

Where you can get help

Reach Out: 24/7 crisis line for people experiencing a mental health or addictions crisis living in Elgin, Oxford, Middlesex or London. Call 1-866-933-2023.

The Support Line: 24/7, confidential listening and support for people 16 old older. Call 519-601-8055, toll-free 1-844-360-8055. The line is unable to accommodate unknown numbers, so call Reach Out instead.

Under 16? Call Kids Help Phone. Live chat and texting are also options. 1-800-668-6868.