Calls to Alberta mental health helplines spike during coronavirus

Calls to Alberta's mental health and addiction helplines has grown three-fold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

Isolation is hitting hard due to COVID-19 LIVEWIRE MEDIA LIBRARY

Jean has been feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders dealing with the impact of the coronavirus on her daily life.

She is feeling bored, lonely and sad about all the things that have been ruined because of the Pandemic and the current isolation.

Jean isn’t alone. Both Alberta’s Mental Health Help Line and Calgary’s Distress Centre have been overwhelmed with calls from people looking for help.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) saw a three-fold increase in the number of Albertans reaching out via their helplines.

Prior to COVID-19, they would see 30 to 40 calls a day from Albertans. Now they’re getting closer to 110 to 120.

For Jean, who wanted to use her first name to protect her privacy, coronavirus isolation has impacted how she’s feeling, particularly with her ongoing work as a law student.

“I’m about to finish my articling. I’m about to be called to the bar and that just means that the last six weeks of my articling would have been spent at my firm with all the people that I love and love working with,” she said.

“Now I’m spending time alone at home. And it also means that I can’t resolve the issues for my clients that I was supposed to. I don’t get a bar call with all my family and friends.”

What Calgarians can do to have a positive mindset

In the last two weeks, The Distress Centre Calgary has seen a 100 per cent increase in calls to their contact centre. Their 211 Crisis Line that’s connected to counseling has had the most demand.

David Kirby, the Clinical Services Manager at the Distress Centre, said that everyone is trying to adjust to working from their home. With school out, that might mean managing kids’ education on top of that.

Plus, many Calgarians are now unemployed and family finances are hanging in the balance.

Kirby said establishing a daily routine that healthy and diverse is a positive first step.

“And of course, physical activities are important,” he said. Personal connections are important, too.

“The more that people can engage in reaching out and talking to family members, loved ones and friends, having virtual coffee dates, or virtual lunch or breakfast or sort of meals together, the more we can hopefully kind of normalize the routines for now.”

Coronavirus impact on mental health – both short and long term

Dr. Nick Mitchell, AHS medical director of addiction and mental health, said there are both short- and long-term mental health concerns.

In the short-term, there’s fear of the virus itself and the health of our loved ones.

The change in our regular routines also poses problems, Mitchell said.

Albertans aren’t able meet up with friends and families to do worry-free things they’re used to. This not only limits connection, but it limits access to ways people cope with stress .

Long-term issues revolve around employment and finances. If the situation persists and people are feeling overwhelmed, there is a risk of developing depression and anxiety, Mitchell said.

“In the Fort McMurray fires, what we saw was that initially in the short term, most of it, was people just trying to manage their stress and their emotions,” he said.

“About six months after the fire, we started to see people identifying that they had ongoing depression or anxiety and coming and looking for more clinical help. So, we’re planning for that.” said Mitchell.

AHS staffing up to help Albertans dealing with coronavirus pressures

Dr. Mitchell also talked about how they’re preparing to manage this situation.

Because of the increase in the number of calls and the demand for services, AHS has recruited more staff. They want to ensure people aren’t waiting on the phone and that calls from Albertans aren’t being missed.

AHS lines were managed by one team; now one team is managing the addiction hotline and another the mental health helpline. Those lines are managed by multiple shifts throughout the day.

“The plan on an ongoing basis is we’re going to increase staffing. So, we’re probably going to look at having about 50 people that will be on rotating shifts,” he said.

“And these would all be people who are frontline staff with experience in counseling and therapy, mental health and addiction support.”

If you need help, the Alberta Health Services mental health helpline 1-877-303-2642 and the addiction helpline 1-866-332-322. Both are 24/7 available across the province.

The Distress Centre crisis line can also be reached 24/7 at 403-266-4357. Their online confidential chat available daily from 3 to 10 p.m.

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