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Crisis Lines Are Humming but Hampered

Helpline calls are up. But as programs close, the support to connect people with is limited.

Moira Wyton 25 Mar

Moira Wyton is health reporter for The Tyee. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Crisis and helpline services in B.C. are bracing for a rise in calls as social isolation and financial anxiety cause more people to seek crisis support.

The precautions urged to combat COVID-19 — isolation and social distancing — are the opposite of what professionals often recommend for people living with mental illness and acute stress.

And day programs that provide support and connection have been cancelled by health authorities and other agencies to slow the spread of the virus.

That means an increasing number of people will need to turn to phone, chat and text supports as other mental health services move online.

“A number of the calls we get are people who are feeling very isolated,” said Joanne Hogan, promotions co-ordinator at the Vancouver Island Crisis Society, which runs a phone, text and online chat crisis support service. “There are some people now, especially people with ongoing mental health issues, who are feeling a little bit of isolation.”

A growing number of people are also contacting the crisis centre with virus-specific concerns and anxieties. “We expect that might increase a little bit more as the isolation continues on a longer term for more people.”

Premier John Horgan acknowledged these worries Monday as he announced the $5-billion “first step” in the province’s relief for workers and businesses.

“At a time like this when people are uncertain about their economic future... anxiety goes up, depression goes up,” he said.

These feelings are increasingly apparent among the Chinese Canadian community in B.C., which has been the target of racist sentiments and stigma as a result of the pandemic.

SUCCESS, a B.C. non-profit that helps new Canadians of Chinese descent overcome cultural and language barriers in health care and social services, is fielding a rising number of calls on its Mandarin and Cantonese helpline from community members concerned about how the COVID-19’s origin in China will impact their livelihoods and small businesses.

“There is a lot of fear and anxiety for those people who may be affected economically and socially,” said Queenie Choo, CEO of SUCCESS.

Calls haven’t increased, she said, but many callers say they are feeling helpless, staying home and wondering what they can do to help the community. “This is the time to stay connected virtually and stand in solidarity,” said Choo.

Crisis lines can be an essential intervention when someone is at a breaking point, but they also serve an important function in connecting people with in-person resources in their area.

But with many of those resources now closed or services delivered remotely, Vancouver Island Crisis Society, SUCCESS and other crisis lines are limited in what they can do for people in need. The crisis society is in touch with as many as 110 people every day.

“One of the integral components of our services is providing resources in the community where that person is calling from. A lot of those resources are shut down now,” said Hogan.

Professional associations for counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists have advised their members to transition to online and phone sessions in recent days.

Crisis lines, which are free, may also begin to substitute for these more costly forms of mental health care, particularly when hundreds of thousands of Canadians have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.


Not all counselling, therapy or psychiatry services are covered by provincial health care in B.C. Many people would have lost benefit plans that covered some service when they were laid off.

“Counselling goes to the bottom of the list when you're trying to put food on the table and pay rent,” said Carolyn Fast, executive director of the B.C. Association of Clinical Counsellors. “We know that so many people are being challenged with job loss and reduction, and right at the time that they need the most support, they may not be able to afford it.”

With physical connection off the table for many mental health service providers, crisis line support workers are trying to validate feelings and de-escalate crises without the ability to connect people to counsellors or programs.

“It is perhaps a little more necessary to keep validating people who have mental health challenges and to support them right now,” said Hogan. “And there's some people, including people who do not have mental health challenges, who get more escalated in times of crisis like this.”

Need help? Here are some numbers to call.

1800SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433 if you are considering suicide or are concerned about someone who may be.

310Mental Health Support: 310-6789 for emotional support, information and resources specific to mental health.

Here’s also a map of crisis lines and resources by region.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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