Calls to distress lines climb amid increased anxiety over COVID-19

Crisis lines and mental health professionals are seeing a jump in calls as Canadians come to grips with the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasingly drastic measures aimed at containing the novel coronavirus.

'People are feeling worried and scared,' one health professional says

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, is seen on a television in the background as international travellers arrive at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. With the increase in cases of COVID-19, many people may be feeling anxious. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Crisis lines and mental health professionals are seeing a jump in calls as Canadians come to grips with the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasingly drastic measures aimed at containing the novel coronavirus.

While some level of concern is both normal and healthy, experts say the risk of overreacting can lead to an inability to function, compulsive panic-buying or even self-harm.

"We're experiencing a significant increase in calls," Neta Gear, executive director for Distress and Crisis Ontario, said on Monday. "People are very anxious about what's happening. People are feeling worried and scared."

Increasingly, Canadians are being forced to cope with sudden disruptions more normally associated with wartime: Workers are being sent home; schools have closed; sports, entertainment and restaurant venues shut down; vacation plans shattered; and loved ones are stranded abroad.

In addition, those returning from out of the country, those who show symptoms or those who have had close contact with someone infected are being quarantined or asked to self-isolate for at least two weeks.

A woman walks along a nearly empty sidewalk in Montreal on Monday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Peter Selby, a clinician-scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said previous pandemics such as SARS in 2003 have tended to lead to an increase in mental-health issues and self-harming.

It's critical people find supports, Selby said.

"Social isolation doesn't mean emotional isolation," said Selby. "Social isolation doesn't mean lock yourself in your room and only watch TV and don't talk to anybody."

Selby advised limiting exposure to coronavirus-related news and especially to alarmist social media. People in isolation can get trapped watching the same news over and again, which can unnecessarily amplify fears, he said.

"Get information once in the day," Selby said. "You need to reduce the amount of information coming in that is not necessarily productive or helpful."

350% increase

At Kids Help Phone, which takes about 1,500 calls and texts a day, overall contacts have only begun to creep up. What has shifted dramatically is the content of the calls.

"We have seen about a 350 per cent increase in young people reaching out with fears related to COVID-19," said Alisa Simon, senior vice-president at Kids Help Phone. "It really started ramping up in the middle of last week."

Chris Summerville, chief executive officer with the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said stress is a key factor in any type of mental-health relapse. The antidote is to engage in as much positive activity and thinking as possible.

"As much as is possible, express care, concern and love to one another," Summerville said.

Shoppers at Superstore buy paper towel and toilet paper in Vancouver on March 2. Across the country, stores are seeing more panic-buying over COVID-19 fears. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Doing something positive can alleviate feelings of helplessness as the pandemic rages, experts advise. That could mean volunteering to become a crisis-line responder or engage in activities as simple as trying a new recipe or walking the dog.

For those in distress over COVID-19, experts say, it's especially important to know they are not alone and help is available — even if by phone or text.

"You want to make sure that people who are having stress reactions or are getting suicidal get support right away," Selby said.

In the interim, mental-health services are coping with their own issues of illness or self-isolation, even as workloads increase.

"We know that the anxiety levels are increasing," Simon said. "We anticipate that we are going to see large surges in demand for our service as other services close their doors."

Some resources for those in crisis:

  • Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645; 1-866-277-3553 (from Quebec).
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868.
  • First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310.
  • Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266.


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