Crisis line

Mental health crisis lines are busier than ever

The number of calls and the intensity of calls has increased. But the community is stepping up to help

With all almost all of 2020 dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, there have been unprecedented pressures on people’s mental health.

A B.C.-wide survey commissioned by Pacific Blue Cross shows that 50 per cent of British Columbians are having difficulty accessing the mental health care support they need.

At the same time, crisis lines in the Interior region, including Cranbrook, have been busier than they’ve ever been, with a 26 per cent rise in calls over last year. Many callers report feeling anxious and depressed. Crisis lines are available across B.C., every day of the year, at any hour, to support people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Asha Croggon, Program Director of the Interior Crisis Line Network, said over the past few months they’ve seen an increase in the number, complexity and intensity of calls to the crisis lines in the region.

“We’re seeing more calls coming in, and the complexity and intensity of those calls are much higher,” Croggon said. “Not only in increased call volumes, with more people reaching out, whether it’s to self-manage their mental health, or because they are in crisis and really needing support to de-escalate and connect to much needed resources. But we’re also seeing an increase in the complexity and intensity of calls.”

The survey of 1,000 people commissioned by Pacific Blue Cross, a not-for-profit health insurance provider and funding partner of the Interior Crisis Line Network, pulled in some very revealing data, Croggon said.

“Not only are we hearing an increase in calls and complexity, but in that survey of 1,000 people across the province, what they were able to show is that we went from roughly 80 per cent saying [their] mental health is good to great, and another 20 per cent saying it’s fair to very poor. In just a matter of months we’ve seen that shift to 50/50.

Fair to poor to very poor is actually gaining ground.”

Croon said this is a reflection of compassion fatigue, and a reflection of crisis fatigue.

“Research shows that when something intense happens, whether it’s an intense fire season, or a suicide in the community, or something like a pandemic, we initially have a lot of resources and tools that we’ll use. But as the effects draw on, those tools wear down, and our resilience wears down. That’s absolutely what we’re seeing.”

At the same time, Croggon said, there has been tremendous support from the community at large, with more and more people reaching out to help.

“They want to have a sense of connection and meaning in their lives, and they want to come forward and volunteer for the crisis line,” said Croggon. “And we’re seeing both happening simultaneously.”

The Pacific Blue Cross Health Foundation recently made a $10,000 donation to the Cranbrook Division of the Interior Crisis Line to support and train the line’s volunteers.

“They’ve been a fantastic partner,” Croggon said. “We’re so fortunate [to have] our funders.”

The Cranbrook crisis line volunteers are trained through the Canadian Mental Health Association of the Kootenays, and they’re absolutely fantastic, Croggon said.

“Our people are phenomenal. We have an amazing staff of volunteers. We have 130 crisis responders across the region. They’ve all been through 50-plus hours of training so that they understand crisis de-escalation. I’ve had people say that the training is literally life-changing for them, not just the people on the lines. They’re learning things that I wish we all knew.”

Croggon adds that volunteers are trained to really view crisis “as both a danger and an opportunity”.

“We must always tend to the danger and as well be open to the opportunity that presents itself. What we’re seeing in this data is that people are struggling to self-manage their mental health. One of the opportunities that shows is 66 per cent of those thousand people interviewed knew about the mental health crisis line. That’s a pretty good draw. It means people are aware of it. And certainly we’ve seen spikes of anywhere between 25 to 45 (per cent) increases, depending on the month, of incoming calls.

“So definitely, people are reaching out. They’re hearing about us more. And when they call into us, we’re going to be able to work with them to either develop a safe plan, if they need one, or simply a self-care plan — what can they do today to feel a bit better. And if they’re open, then we’re connecting them to other resources. Many people who call into us are already connected to the mental health system in some way.

We were able to stage about 4,000 interventions between March and the end of June. Those were people who would have needed to go either for 911, an emergency team, or even connect with their mental health worker between visits because they’re escalating. We were able to work with people to be strength-based and support care plan so they didn’t have to require an intervention.”

At its most basic level, this front line contact in times of mental health distress shows the simple but profound importance of a sympathetic ear.

“There are very clear signs to show that when we are truly listened to, when we feel heard, it reduces adrenalin and cortisol — the stress hormones — it actually opens functioning in our brain that we need in order to problem solve. It also helps memory and communication,” Croggon said. “We forget the tools that we have. We forget that we’ve been through something even worse before. We forget people care about us. We communicate really poorly. We think we’re being problem solvers but we’re actually just being problem focussed. That’s how our brain is wired.

“Feeling heard, and having someone who’s going to walk you through the next couple of days, or couple of hours — a self-care plan, a safe plan — whatever you need to either find your equilibrium again, your routine balance, or connect you to further [support] if you need it.”

When people think crisis, they often think the highest level of crisis — a life-or-death emergency, say. But the ongoing pandemic has put immense pressures on people in every walk of life.

“We also receive many of our calls, the majority, from people self-managing their illness. They’ve had a bad day, they’re struggling with some anxiety or depression — and they’re not in crisis, but they reach out to self-manage so they don’t get there.”

And many other people, besides, who might not have thought of themselves as having to manage a mental health issue.

“We have first responders reaching out if they’ve had a bad day. We’ve had teachers, parents — all sorts of people who just or saying ‘you know what, I just need to tell someone I’ve had a bad day, and work with someone, and feel heard, so that I can remember all the tools that I have. Then I can go back into my world.’

“The pandemic is extraordinary. It’s an extraordinary thing. It’s requiring extraordinary amounts of self-care and care from our community.”

The number for the Interior Crisis Line is 1-888-353-2273. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Croggon said if the line is busy, a caller will go into a queue, or can call back.