Crisis helpline in B.C. struggling to keep up with surge in calls as funding dries up

·4 min read

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent the province into what felt like a spiralling lockdown in March, Crisis Centre B.C. prepared as quickly as it could with Vancouver Coastal Health, volunteers and staff for an expected surge in calls to its helpline.

From callers overwhelmed by the pandemic and its consequences like losing jobs and loved ones, to desperate calls for help with mental health concerns and suicidal thoughts, the expected spike in call volume happened — but the added demand has been too much and come too fast for staff and volunteers to keep up with, the service says.

It's now seeking funds to help train more volunteers.

Call volume has increased by an average of 25 per cent over the past seven months, said Stacy Ashton, executive director of Crisis Centre B.C., where volunteers make up more than 80 per cent of the responders trained to answer calls from people in distress and provide immediate access to barrier-free, non-judgmental, confidential support.

The helpline was already busy before the pandemic.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"Over the past five years our calls have increased about 40 per cent overall. The spike we're seeing from COVID is on top of the overall increase in activity on the phone lines," Ashton said.

She said there are 250 volunteers and nearly 50 staff or relief staff on the whole team. On a daily basis, around 20 to 25 will work daily for the 24/7 helpline, in four-hour shifts. They're currently answering on average nearly 200 calls a day — though that number can be as high as 280 — while also helping out on other chats and providing consultation for colleagues.

Before the pandemic, the daily average number of calls was around 170.

"It's always frustrating [when] you see calls coming in that you can't get to or that you're going to get to late." - Ivana Bilic, Crisis Centre B.C. volunteer

"We haven't been idle here. We've been working to get the number of calls we can answer up," Ashton said.

But more volunteers are needed — and, as it takes at least 120 hours to properly train and prepare each volunteer, Ashton says, that costs money.

She said while there is provincial support, the donations and grants from the community that the Crisis Centre heavily relies on have decreased over the past few months as donors themselves try to stay afloat and serve the community that needs them.

She said more dollars from community as well as corporate donors would help not only with more staff, but also more community work around crisis intervention and suicide prevention, such as training for police officers, Ashton said.

Her fear is that a lack of consistent donations and funds could lead to more callers in distress being sent to voicemail. During the pandemic, voicemail volume has climbed from approximately 40 to now at least 70 voicemails a day.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

'Frustrating' to not be able to answer some calls

Volunteer Ivana Bilic, 31, said the centre is the first line of defence for many in distress before they potentially filter out into the wider health-care system — so it's tough for call-takers when they see they can't handle every call.

"It's always frustrating in the call room and you see calls coming in that you can't get to or that you're going to get to late. You hate seeing a call go through that you can't pick up. But obviously the priority is being with the person you're with," Bilic said.

Although it's busier than ever, Bilic strongly encourages the public to use the helpline if they need it.

"When people use the line and find it useful, that's when our strongest argument can be used for more funding or more resources," she said.

And the volunteers are urging people in crisis to turn to them because now, more than ever, they can better relate to what they're going through.

"We are going through the same thing... when they're talking COVID and the isolation of it, because we're very close to that issue ourselves," Bilic said.

Where to get help

Crisis Centre B.C.: 1-800-SUICIDE, 1-800-784-2433

Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789

Vancouver Coastal Regional Distress Line: 604-872-3311

Sunshine Coast/Sea to Sky: 1-866-661-3311

Online Chat Service for Youth: (noon-1 a.m.)

Online Chat Service for Adults: (noon to 1 a.m.)

Kids Help: 1-800-668-6868, live chat counselling at

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs:

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Substance abuse

  • Purposelessness

  • Anxiety

  • Feeling trapped

  • Hopelessness and helplessness

  • Withdrawal

  • Anger

  • Recklessness

  • Mood changes

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