Sexual assault survivors are waiting more than a year for free counselling in Edmonton

Neil Campbell says he waited more than 10 months for one-on-one counselling through SACE. (Travis McEwan - image credit)
Neil Campbell says he waited more than 10 months for one-on-one counselling through SACE. (Travis McEwan - image credit)

A non-profit that provides free counselling and support services to sexual violence survivors is struggling to meet the rising demand for its services.

Adult survivors are now waiting up to 14 months for one-on-one counselling through the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. Group therapy is available sooner.

"This has just been climbing steadily over the last 12 months and I don't see any end in sight," SACE CEO Mary Jane James told CBC News on Wednesday.

Neil Campbell, a sexual abuse survivor, said individual counselling offered through SACE saved his life, but waiting more than 10 months for it a few years ago was horrible.

"You feel defeated, you feel alone again. A lot of us go back into our shell, into hiding and the darkness we know all too well," he said.

Campbell said when he asked for help, he was close to taking his own life. He said he knows there are thousands of Albertans in a similar situation, who are not getting the help they need.

"I'm certain that we're losing lives every day," he said.

Deb Tomlinson, CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, said Edmonton currently has one of the longest wait lists in Alberta for counselling, but all centres have challenges.

"There's an increasing demand for service and not enough resources to meet that demand and that's common all across our province," she said.

Sexual assault centres have been advocating for more funding from the provincial government since May.

Tomlinson said the association proposed the government spend an additional $14 million on sexual assault centres annually. The money would be used to hire more staff, address the increasing complexity of cases, help survivors navigate the justice system and run school and community-based prevention programs.

So far, the government has offered additional funding for one year only, with no funds for justice or prevention programs, Tomlinson said. She called the offer "unworkable."

James said SACE needs three-to-four more specialized therapists, but would only be able to hire less than two full-time staff members with the allotted amount per the government's offer.

"You're not going to tackle a wait list that's over 1,000 people, with more coming in every day, by adding just one more," she said.

Lisa Shankaruk, communications director for the ministry of seniors, community and social services, said the government will review the association's proposal over the coming months.

She said following the 2020 budget, the province increased budgets for sexual assault centres over three years. Overall, she said, the government provides more than $17 million across four ministries.

Tomlinson said the previous increase helped the association recover from past cuts and reach survivors in small towns that lacked services, but it isn't enough to seriously address the rising demand for services.

She said funding sexual assault centres makes fiscal sense because sexual violence is linked to addiction, chronic mental illness and homelessness.

"Unless we invest upfront in treatment and prevention, those problems are not going to go away," she said.

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

Elizabeth Halpin, who was a SACE client from 2012-2014, said she waited only six weeks for counselling back then.

She said before starting treatment, she was having nightmares and was afraid to leave her house.

"My world was just really small so being able to get that help quickly really helped improve my quality of life and changed my life really quickly," she said.