Fraser Health Crisis Line marks 50 years as pandemic pushes demand

·3 min read
Thaddée Bergler is the program manager for the Fraser Health Crisis Line and began as a call taker with the Vancouver Crisis Centre in 2012. (Thaddée Bergler (he/him/his) Program Manager Fraser Health Crisis Line - image credit)
Thaddée Bergler is the program manager for the Fraser Health Crisis Line and began as a call taker with the Vancouver Crisis Centre in 2012. (Thaddée Bergler (he/him/his) Program Manager Fraser Health Crisis Line - image credit)

The phone line people turn to from Burnaby to Boston Bar for empathy and support during emotional distress has marked 50 years in service. Now as the Fraser Health Crisis Line scrambles during the pandemic to meet demand, volunteers are lining up to help.

The crisis line has 170 volunteers, who each work at least one four-hour shift a week, and more than 20 staff.

"The crisis line is always there," said Thaddée Bergler, who is the program manager for the crisis line, which is available 24/7 for anyone wanting to speak on the phone with a trained, empathetic listener about how they are feeling. It turned 50 in January.

The anniversary comes as volunteers and staff across the province at multiple crisis phone line centres have faced a constant crush of calls from people wanting to talk about feelings of loneliness, despair and even suicide, much of it due to living through the pandemic.

"COVID permeates everything in our lives. So I'm sure that every single call we get has some aspect of COVID," said Bergler.

From April 1, 2020, to March 31 this year, the crisis line answered more than 54,000 calls, an increase of 6,000 calls year-over-year.

Fraser Health's line came into being in 1971, three years after the Vancouver crisis line, both founded to help people having negative experiences with drugs.

"The fact that the crisis lines have been operating in Canada for more than a half a century is amazing," said Stacy Ashton, the executive director of Vancouver's Crisis Centre of B.C.

The Vancouver Crisis Centre was founded in the late 1960s to help people through bad drug trips and evolved to be the first contact for many people seeking help for emotional and mental distress.
The Vancouver Crisis Centre was founded in the late 1960s to help people through bad drug trips and evolved to be the first contact for many people seeking help for emotional and mental distress.(Crisis Centre of BC)

All it takes is a phone call, which can be a good place to start for someone suffering, Ashton said.

"I think that emotional distress and mental health distress is a part of being a human being, and the role of crisis lines is to catch probably 85 per cent of the crisis and emotional distress before it gets to a place where you need more intensive services," she said.

Both Ashton and Bergler say the pandemic has shown the importance of crisis lines.

Provincial boost

On Tuesday, the province announced billions of dollars in health and mental health spending over the next three years, part of which Ashton says will be used to further bolster the crisis lines and improve technology to make them more accessible and dependable.

"Crisis lines are a key part of the province's strategy to help meet people's needs," she said.

Meanwhile, the answering side of the line has been a growing draw for people looking to give back to their communities and also gain training that can help them move onto careers in health care, social work or policing.

"The position is the most responsibility you can get in a volunteer role," said Bergler.

He said the recruitment process had to be changed this past year to handle a dramatic increase in inquiries.

Volunteers are now put through an online application process, attend an info session and, if they want to continue, receive training on how to become the empathetic listeners required for the job.

'Amazing volunteers'

Both Bergler and Ashton say volunteers, who work night and day, are what have made the lines a cornerstone of community health for decades.

"It really is our volunteers that have helped us sustain our service through COVID," said Bergler. "None of this is possible without our amazing volunteers and their dedication and generosity."

If you need help, call 310-6789 from anywhere in the province, no area code needed, to connect with crisis line call-takers in your community.