About a month ago, Saint John resident Heath Johnston was experiencing a mental health crisis: He was worried about how he would pay rent on top of dealing with the recent death of his brother and best friend.
In a panic and not knowing who to turn to, Johnston said he picked up the phone to call Chimo Helpline, the provincial crisis and suicide prevention phone line that's supposed to be accessible to New Brunswickers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The 43-year-old, who suffers from a spinal injury and has been on a disability pension for years, called and called, but he says he never got through. He's been trying to reach someone for at least a month now.
"At one time, the number wouldn't even complete the dialling," said Johnston, adding he knows several other people who have attempted to get through and failed. "That's when I got ahold of Bell, and they tried it, and they got the same thing. It goes: 'All of our interveners are busy. If it's an emergency, call 911.'"
The Telegraph-Journal called Chimo's 1-800 number twice. Its website says "live chat hours" are between 5 p.m. and 12 a.m. On both occasions, the phone rang with no answer or message. On one call, the phone rang about six times before the line was dropped.
On Wednesday, Lisa Edwards, program manager with Chimo, said she wasn't aware of the issue until Tuesday.
"Obviously, there's a problem somewhere, and we need to address it," she said. "It's going to be a tech thing that I'm hoping to get addressed."
After speaking with the newspaper, Chimo posted on Facebook, calling the problem a technical issue with its 1-800 number. It advises people to call the local line at 1-506-450-4357.
"We apologize if anyone has had trouble getting ahold of us because of this," reads the post. "We are open, we are here and we encourage you to reach out if you're in need."
This is not the first time people in need haven't been able to reach the crisis line. In recent years, Chimo has launched fundraisers called #answerthecall to help boost the number of calls it can answer. The organization has said because of increased demand for its services, more than 2,000 calls go unanswered a year.
Johnston said there's a serious problem in the province because people struggling with serious mental health issues face considerable obstacles getting help, particularly late at night.
"The Saint John Mobile Crisis Services puts you through to Tele-Care after 10:30 or 11 o'clock at night and Tele-Care tells you, 'We don't talk to people in crisis. We have no idea why they're putting you through to us,'" he said.
In an emailed response from Jean Daigle, vice-president of community with Horizon Health, the Mobile Crisis Response Unit in Saint John operates seven days a week, between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.
"Any crisis calls that come in outside of these hours are forwarded to Tele-Care 811," he wrote.
Jaidyn McCarty, with the Saint John Human Development Council, recently coordinated the re-release of the council's "Surviving the Streets" guide. It provides a contact list for those experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis.
Aside from the mobile crisis unit, she said the Saint John Regional Hospital is also open around the clock. The number for the Emergency Mental Health Department is 648-6479.
"If it's an immediate mental health emergency, (for example, suicidal thoughts), police are trained to deal with these types of situations, so 911 is always an option as well," she wrote in an email.
In February, the New Brunswick government announced its five-year addictions and mental health action plan, which outlines plans to strengthen its mental health crisis and addictions response.
The plan will focus on 12 key priorities, such as adding walk-in addiction and mental health services across the province, implementing addiction and mental health resources to fill current gaps in staffing and prepare for increased demand from COVID-19, and creating a provincial treatment centre for youth, among others.
Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal