Crisis helpline sees increased demand, other mental health services pivot to digital

New Brunswick's crisis hotline has been seeing a 50 per cent increase in the number of calls since the COVID-19 crisis began. 

Most people calling have been struggling with losing their jobs or coping with self-isolation and the stress of facing a provincial state of emergency, said Lisa O'Blenis, executive director of Chimo Helpline.

"There are a lot of people experiencing anxiety right now," she said.

O'Blenis said people who are normally very social are having some trouble coping with isolation.

Those with any kind of mental illness or obsessive compulsive disorders are experiencing more anxiety, and students who depended on mental health services on campus don't have access to it anymore.

There have been 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province. The virus has been spreading across the globe, causing major shutdowns and calls for people to stay home. The province declared a state of emergency last week.

O'Blenis said the helpline has added 12 people to their staff, bringing the total to 27 people available to cover the shifts for the 24-hour service. The hotline also has 22 volunteers, but some callers are still finding it can be difficult to get through and end up calling back at a less busy time, O'Blenis said.

She said this can happen even on regular days because they "can't predict peak hours."

"So 40 people call at once… and we don't have 40 people on, then some people are going to have to wait," she said.

If there are too many people calling, O'Blenis said the overflow calls would go to voicemail, where you can ask for a call back. or they hang up and call at a different time.

She said it's been even more difficult to predict peak hours now that most people are home.

"Right now it's fluctuating. Sometimes we're busy in the morning, early afternoon because people are home now, right. So our peak times have changed," she said.

No matter who we are, as we're continuing to work through a time of uncertainty, we do need that check-in. - Kristen Barnes, Canadian Mental Health Association

The staff can't work from home because of equipment and privacy concerns, so O'Blenis said they've been following social distancing guidelines, meaning only four people can take calls in one shift.

She said the hotline usually takes about 33 calls per day. But, some days she's seeing a 38 to 50 per cent increase.

O'Blenis said it's important for people to keep themselves occupied if they're stuck at home. They should focus on constructive hobbies, and make sure they're getting exercise, even if it's indoors.

A shift to virtual help

Kristen Barnes with the Canadian Mental Health Association in New Brunswick says a lot of service providers are moving to the virtual space. This includes counsellors, therapists and her own organization.

She said free webinars run by therapists and staff will begin Wednesday, dealing with the major concerns people are having: money troubles, figuring out a routine while at home, and explaining COVID-19 to their children.

Anyone can join these webinars, up to 100 people. The webinars will also be available to view on their website afterwards.

The organization is also looking at having different groups meeting online - focusing on mindfulness, coping skills and supporting others.

There are services for front line mental health workers, too.

"No matter who we are, as we're continuing to work through a time of uncertainty, we do need that check-in," she said.

O'Blenis said in times when every clinic is closed, and people are afraid for their own safety and others, anxiety is high—but help is there.

"[If you're] having trouble sleeping, you're experiencing some anxiety, and you just need to talk that out, we're just a phone call away," she said,

Barnes said few people in the mental health sector expected to have to pivot to remote assistance this quickly, but they're adapting. She said this experience is a reminder of how important it is to connect with people.

"Keep reaching out to people and, you know, checking in on people," she said. "I think that's been a really good refresher for even myself."

The Chimo Hotline can be reached by calling 1-800-667-5005 or messaging a staff member at www.chimohelpline.ca.