This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML

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

There were 62 per cent more ‘active rescues’ this month than compared to the same month last year

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.

READ MORE: Vancouver Island support group reports 40 per cent leap in women seeking escape from family violence

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.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

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

Just Posted

(File Photo)
COVID-19: District of Kent responds to provincial health restrictions

CRCC limits schedule, Municipal Hall offers alternate services for those unable to wear masks

Google Maps screenshot taken at 7:06 a.m.
Early-morning crash on Highway 1 has morning commuters in gridlock

Westbound crash occurred in Langley, west of 264th Street; left lane blocked

The Small Works display features work from local artists on wood panels. Panels are available at Ranger Station Art Gallery (File Photo)
Small Works submission deadline approaching

Ranger Station Art Gallery seeks local artists for upcoming display

Signs up at Hope Secondary School inform visitors that the school is a closed campus during the coronavirus pandemic. (Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard)
Second COVID-19 exposure at Hope Secondary School

Fraser Health website lists exposure on Nov. 11 and 12

New Chilliwack Chief Ray Fust.
Chilliwack Chief Ray Fust in the mix for Swiss U20 roster spot

Fust is hoping to make the team that will compete in the World Junior Hockey Championships

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

(Black Press Media files)
B.C. to test emergency alert system on cell phones, TVs, radios on Wednesday

The alert is part of a twice yearly test of the national Alert Ready system

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

Phillip Tallio was just 17 when he was convicted of murder in 1983 (file photo)
Miscarriage of justice before B.C. teen’s 1983 guilty plea in girl’s murder: lawyer

Tallio was 17 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of his 22-month-old cousin

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
41 positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

7-year-old Mackenzie Hodge from Penticton sent a hand-written letter to premiere John Horgan asking if she’d be able to see her elf, Ralph under the new coronavirus restrictions. (John Horgan / Twitter)
Elf on the shelf an acceptable house guest, B.C. premier tells Penticton girl

A 7-year-old from Penticton penned a letter asking if she’d be allowed to see her elf this year

Most Read