The phones of Fraser Health Crisis Line are ringing more often these days, compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
COVID-19 is considered the cause of a 12-per-cent spike in call volume for the Surrey-based service, which involves the help of close to 150 well-trained volunteers.
A research survey of B.C. residents commissioned by Pacific Blue Cross reveals 37 per cent of respondents are depressed or anxious, but just 15 per cent seek counselling support.
The Fraser Health Crisis Line, a program of Options Community Services, offers free, confidential emotional support, crisis intervention, and community resource information for any concern, including mental health and substance use.
The numbers to call are 604-951-8855 or toll-free, 1-877-820-7444 — any time of day, 365 days a year.
It’s the busiest crisis line in B.C., fielding close to 50,000 calls annually in the Fraser Health region.
The program is managed by Thaddée Bergler for Options Community Services, at a call centre in the Whalley area.
“About 20 per cent of the calls we take have some aspect of it that is COVID-related, whether it’s the main concern or some side issue prompting another issue for someone,” Bergler said on Wednesday (Nov. 18).
“What we’re finding is that people in the community with a mental illness, and maybe already live isolated lives, they’re facing an additional challenge to their everyday life with COVID and less opportunities to socialize and get support.”
Some people call the crisis line on a regular basis, Bergler noted.
“Unfortunately there are some people in the community that the only type of social interaction they have is through the crisis line, and sometimes a phone call with one of our volunteers is what gets them through the day.”
The Pacific Blue Cross-commissioned study, involving 800 B.C. adults polled by Insights West from Sept. 16-24, suggests that since the pandemic hit, B.C. crisis lines have experienced a 27-per-cent increase in call volume, with more people seeking support for anxiety (47 per cent increase), depression (40 per cent increase) or loneliness or social isolation (24 per cent).
The volunteers of Fraser Health Crisis Line are trained to deal with such issues – and more people are signing up to volunteer right now, according to Bergler.
“We always are (looking for volunteers),” he said, “but actually since the start of COVID we’ve seen a significant interest in volunteering with us. We’re almost inundated right now with people who are interested.
“We’ve hypothesized a couple of reasons why,” Bergler continued, “and I think with COVID there are a lot less volunteer opportunities out there, and ours is essential. We need to continue our service and we rely on volunteers to do that. And I think we have a really good reputation in the community, so people who want to get their start in the helping field, whether it’s police, being a doctor, a therapist, these are the kinds of skills and experiences they want to have under their belt when they enter those programs or jobs, to pursue those careers.”
The crisis line aims to have between 140 and 160 volunteers available, “and maybe 170 is the ceiling of what we can have, with the staff team we have in place to provide support and supervision,” Bergler noted.
“It’s gotta be a fit for the right kind of person to do it, with our training program. (Volunteers) have to demonstrate certain levels of skills we require, with a knowledge piece and of course an attitudinal piece. There’s an active screening process we have in place.”
The PBC Health Foundation recently donated $10,000 to Fraser Health Crisis Line for additional staffing, PPE, cleaning supplies and equipment.
Bergler said that right now, the agency is not set up for volunteers to take calls from their homes.
“They all still do it from our work site at Options,” he said. “At our quietest hours we’ll have two (volunteers), and in our busiest hours (from 7 to 11 p.m.) we will have a minimum four, and during some transition between shifts, the most we can have is nine at one time.”
For now, the phone is the only line of communication.
“Online is not something we’re looking at doing, at the moment,” Bergler said. “Right now we’re focusing on what we can do, and do well. There are a lot of challenges that come with delivering this service via text or online.”