Help lines inundated as anxiety over pandemic builds

The agencies behind mental health hotlines in Ottawa say they're seeing a dramatic increase in calls from people seeking comfort and advice during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region has seen a 30 per cent bump in call volume in recent days, and communications manager Leslie Scott said about one-third of them are directly related to anxieties around COVID-19.

"We're seeing a lot of calls coming in that we haven't seen before, so it makes for busy phone lines for us," Scott said. 

Sahar Seif, a graduate student in environmental sustainability at the University of Ottawa, said she waited 10 minutes to speak with someone on the distress line last week before giving up. 

Seif said it's a great service that she's used before, but she couldn't keep waiting. She said she's lucky to have friends and family she can turn to, but not everyone has that support system. 

Scott said some of the callers are worried about losing their jobs and income, or are concerned about loved ones. Most are fearful of the unknown, and about what will happen next.

"We're just talking to them about how they can cope, how can they get through, what options do they have, and working with them to get them through the next hour or day, and making sure they feel a little bit better when they hang up," Scott said. 

Adjusting to the new reality 

The Youth Services Bureau (YSB) of Ottawa has its own crisis line, and executive director Joanne Lowe said there's been a steady increase of calls and texts there, too.

Lowe said the YSB is working on setting up secure video chats to be able to provide more support. 

"We're doing the very best we that we can under pretty extreme circumstances," she said.

It's not just kids, Lowe said: parents who are having a difficult time cooped up indoors with their children are reaching out, too, particularly those whose children have special needs.

The YSB is providing them with information from the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health and Children's Mental Health Ontario to help them learn how to talk to their children about COVID-19. 

Meeting the demand

Because distress line volunteers need 60 hours of training, Scott said staffing to meet the rising demand is a challenge.

"We just had to cancel one of our training classes because of social distancing," she said. 

Lowe said they're currently trying to shuffle employees within the organization to meet the demand while continuing to provide essential services to their clients.

It's the same picture across the country. Emma Blanche, a volunteer with Kids Help Phone in Vancouver, said they're also struggling to meet the demand for volunteers.

She said while many callers don't specifically mention COVID-19, the pandemic seems to be exacerbating exisisting mental health issues for some people, especially those stuck in an unhealthy home environment.

"We're barely keeping up," Blanche said.