Can't breathe? For LRT riders stressed by crowds, there's support

As locals adjust to light rail commutes, stymied by door jams and overcrowding, an Ottawa mental health hotline wants passengers to know it's there for them.

Anyone feeling anxiety, claustrophobia or other issues triggered by the new LRT system can get in touch with the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region — right from the payphones in the LRT stations.

"It can feel like a weight is on your chest. It can feel like you can't take a deep enough breath. You can start to sweat," said spokesperson Leslie Scott, describing what anxiety can feel like on mass transit.

"Our first and foremost message is we're here."

Riders on the Confederation Line faced lengthy delays Tuesday and Wednesday, due to jammed train doors. In both cases, OC Transpo had to run back-up buses to get commuters — who converged in the hundreds at some stations — on their way. 

"I wouldn't be surprised hearing people have had a lot of anxiety," said Kanata commuter Samantha Sensenstein.

Giacomo Panico/CBC

'Absolutely madness'

The 23-year-old travels from her home near Hazeldean Road to Carleton University. On both Tuesday and Wednesday she got "sardined" in, she said, with hundreds of others at Tunney's Pasture station.

Sensenstein saw riders vent their frustrations out loud, cut through crowds and elbow their way onto buses.

"It was just absolutely madness," Sensenstein said. "It was absolutely packed full and I didn't really feel like it was safe."

 Juliett Bassong's trip Wednesday morning from St-Laurent station to Rideau was similarly unpleasant.

"I was anxious because we were so packed. It's ridiculous. There's no room. You can't breathe," Bassong said.

The distress centre has a partnership with OC Transpo where LRT riders can call the 24-hour hotline for free, in French or English, directly using the payphones located on station platforms.

supplied by Samantha Sensenstein

Initially for suicide prevention

The hotline was first installed as a suicide prevention service, Scott said, but is available for any and all mental health concerns.

"We're talking to people that may just have had a really rough day at work. They're getting to the platform. It's busy. They're stressed out and they just want to talk to somebody before they get going home," she said. 

"You have live support right away for whatever you're experiencing."

The centre has received six calls from passengers since the Confederation Line went into service Sept. 14, said Scott. She believes many more people could benefit if they only knew the line exists.

Along with calling the centre, Scott suggests people experiencing anxiety to practice a little self-care.

That might include putting in earbuds and listening to calming music and podcasts, she said, or performing deep-breathing exercises.

Anyone in the Ottawa area can call the distress line for free at 613-238-3311.

People in the Outaouais can reach the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region by calling 1-866-676-1080, toll-free.