Crisis lines face volunteer, cash crunch even as COVID-19 drives surge in calls

Crisis lines face volunteer, cash crunch even as COVID-19 drives surge in calls

OTTAWA — Despite a surge in demand due to COVID-19, many distress centres across Canada are dangerously close to folding thanks to major declines in both volunteers and revenue.

Stephanie MacKendrick, CEO of Crisis Services Canada, which runs the only national suicide-specific helpline in Canada, says her organization relies on a network of approximately 100 community distress centres across the country to field calls from people.

Those centres, which also respond to requests from people looking for other crisis and mental health services or information, have seen 30 to 50 per cent more crisis calls since the pandemic started, which MacKendrick described as a “huge increase.”

COVID-19 is clearly driving much of the demand. According to information compiled by Crisis Services Canada, about 26 per cent of calls and text messages to the national suicide prevention service were related to COVID-19 since March 26.

The severity of these interactions has also increased. If someone reaches out for help and is determined to be at imminent risk of harm, the person taking the call contacts emergency services. These are called “active rescues.”

Although these calls form a relatively small percentage of interactions, there were 62 per cent more active rescues this month than compared to the same month last year. Between January and April of this year, there has been an increase of 34 per cent.

“We’re looking into pinpointing exactly why that is, but I think given that people are being cautioned about going to emergency rooms or calling in emergency services, a probable cause is people are not reaching out until it’s a crisis,” she said.

Yet even as they face more demand, distress centres across Canada have seen a dramatic decline in volunteers, which are vital to the operations of these centres. Some are reporting a loss of up to 90 per cent of their volunteers.

While centres have started turning to paid staff to make up the difference, their cash flows have also been hit hard as their main sources of revenue — training and workshops — have dried up overnight due to the pandemic.

MacKendrick calls this the “perfect storm” for these centres — and for the entire system charged with helping Canadians in crisis.

She likened the situation to the concerns now being expressed about long-term care centres, where COVID-19 outbreaks are laying bare a fragile, underfunded and under-resourced system that has led to hundreds of deaths across the country.

As a result, Crisis Services Canada has issued an urgent request to Ottawa asking for $15 million in emergency funding to ensure distress centres don’t have to close their doors.

“In the pandemic we have discovered very quickly how important (distress centres) are and I think the realization has hit of how vulnerable that sector is,” MacKendrick said.

“By intervening and having someone to talk to, it keeps people out of emergency rooms, it reduces the calls to 911 to bring in emergency services, and in a pandemic, that’s especially important.”

Elizabeth Newcombe is executive director of the Vancouver Island Crisis Society and also part of the Crisis Line Association of B.C., which represents 14 distress centres in British Columbia.

She says her centre doesn’t rely on volunteers as much as other centres. Even so, additional expenses for new paid staff, training and setting up employees to work remotely has hiked her expenses by $20,000 a month.

“Other distress centres are having to pour out that money to get staff to take the calls because volunteers are not coming in, so that’s that perfect storm — increased call volume, less staff to take the calls,” Newcombe said.

“We’re doing it, we’re getting those people in place, but without money, some of these distress centres will not be able to continue, they won’t have the budgets. Their services will shut down.”

Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Alberta, says research on the impacts of economic downturns show that suicide rates often go down at the outset of a crisis. But as time goes on, the cumulative effects lead to spikes 12 to 18 months later.

“We’re nervous, we’re definitely nervous,” Grunau said.

“It’s wonderful that the government has come out with all kinds of programs to help people with their physical needs. … But once people’s food and shelter have been taken care of, I think we’re going to see a giant emergence in people’s mental health needs. And I think what the distress centres and crisis lines are seeing is it’s already starting, it’s already emerging.”

That’s why those who work in suicide prevention are doubly concerned about the duress being faced by the system. The sector has always quietly made do, operating on shoestring budgets under a patchwork of funding models — some are non-profit, some rely on donors with some provincial help — but with no national voice to help them raise the alarm, MacKendrick said.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen. People need someone on the line when they call.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

The influenza vaccine will be available at no cost starting Monday in Alberta. “The more that we can avoid influenza-related tests, emergency visits and hospitalizations, the stronger our system will be to support those with COVID-19 and all other health needs," says Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Hinshaw urges Albertans to get flu shot as COVID cases jump by 332

Alberta’s central zone now has 132 active COVID-19 cases

The Bellows family on vacation last year in Mexico. L-R: Angel, Ryan, Darrel, Grace and Michael. (Photo submitted)
Rimbey community rallying behind family after cancer diagnosis

Michael Bellows, 12, a ‘strong, resilient kid’ says father

Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on October 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals say Tory effort to set up COVID-19 committee will be a confidence matter

The Tories were originally proposing an ‘anticorruption’ committee

Alberta Premier Jason Kenny and government house leader Jason Nixon chat before the speech from the throne delivered in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Alberta politicians are to return to the legislature Tuesday with a plan to discuss up to 20 new bills — many of which are focused on the province’s economic recovery. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta legislature to resume Tuesday; focus to be on economic recovery

Opposition house leader Heather Sweet said the NDP will focus on holding Premier Jason Kenney

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Executive Director of Agape Kate Halas (left) receives $1000 from Sgt. Eric Christensen (right) on behalf of Agape. Photo/ Shaela Dansereau.
Former Wetaskiwin Peace Officer wins provincial award; gives back to Wetaskiwin community

Eric Christensen has won the Alberta Association of Community Peace Officers Award of Excellence.

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Canadian couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Employee Sophia Lovink shows off a bag of merchandise in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Canada gets C-average grade on 2nd year of cannabis legalization

Cannabis Council of Canada releases report card on federal government and legalization

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States are being extended until at least Nov. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Non-essential travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border extended to at least Nov. 21

The restrictions do not apply to those providing essential services in either country

(The Canadian Perss)
Banff wolves have lower survival rate due to hunting, trapping outside park boundary

Researchers looked at 72 radio-collared wolves in the national park from 1987 to August 2019

Most Read