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Coronavirus: Calgary mental health services want you to reach out, be self-compassionate

Counselling services are encouraging people to be compassionate to themselves during this trying time.
Counselling services are encouraging people to be compassionate to themselves during this trying time. Getty Images

It can feel overwhelming, living in the time of COVID-19, but mental health services in Calgary want you to know that help is available.

Distress Centre

The Distress Centre is usually buzzing with volunteers each day.

Now, the contact centre sits empty as 115 staff work from home.

“In the 12 years that I’ve been at the Distress Centre and the 50 years that we’ve been around, this room is never empty,” director of operations Robyn Romano said.

April 14 marked the semicentennial, a time through which the centre said it responded to more than 2.5 million contacts.

“[The centre is] usually full of life and vibrancy, phones ringing and us being able to answer it. Today, all of that work is happening remotely,” Romano said, adding that the centre is working on getting its volunteer training program online to recruit more people.
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Call volumes remain the same as before the pandemic, but the topics have changed, Romano said.

“We’ve have seen a 22 per cent increase in contacts related to suicide,” she said.

“In 2019, an average of 15 per cent of our contacts were related to loneliness and isolation. Now, that’s averaging about 40 to 50 per cent every week and has overtaken anxiety and depression as our number one call issue that we are seeing on the lines. That makes sense with a lot of the physical distancing that’s going on.”

The Distress Centre in Calgary sits empty amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Distress Centre in Calgary sits empty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Global News

The centre is preparing for call volumes to increase once basic needs are met and mental health, isolation and loneliness become more pressing concerns.

“Our volumes have not spiked yet on our crisis services, whereas on 211, which is more around connection to community resources, that has seen quite a large increase,” Romano said.

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“But we know it’s going to come, so if we can get ahead of that curve, check in on each other, check in on ourselves and just get people connected with that support — so biggest message if you need some help and support, reach out. And if you don’t need it right now, reach out to somebody in your life that may.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 5 tips to find the best mental health tools online

Lisa Thomson, contact centre co-ordinator, answers crisis lines and 211.

She said they are specialists in helping people “steer that boat to land,” offering resources and reminders that help exists in the city. That hasn’t changed, but how volunteers are working has.

“What is different than being in the contact centre and during the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that we’re all very disconnected, just like the world seems to be right now,” she said.

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“Normally, we’re able to have each other, we’re able to bounce ideas off, debrief and to go through a day with one another. While the Distress Centre staff are very good at continuing that from at home, the at-home aspect has taken that.”

COVID-19 and your mental health
COVID-19 and your mental health

Her team is coming up with coping mechanisms because so much has changed. The centre still offers the 24/7 crisis line at 403-266-4357, online chat, ConnecTeen, 211 and counselling services.

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“We no longer have the ability to go to a friend’s house or have a family member come over. We no longer have the ability to provide the same suggestions that we normally had,” Thomson said.

“Therefore, it’s all a matter of just figuring out how we can cope through this together and cope in the best manner that we can.”

READ MORE: Our mental health won’t be the same after coronavirus pandemic, experts say

Heightened anxiety and fear are perfectly understandable, Thomson said.

“That’s a major difference with COVID-19 is that this is the first time everyone has been able to relate. There’s not one person that isn’t going through this together, and therefore we all have that same anxiety, fear and frustration because things change minute to minute sometimes,” she said.

“Sometimes people don’t even know where they’re going to get their next meal or they’re afraid to go out and get that meal. That’s just not something, as a society, that we’re very used to.”

Thomson said people are feeling frustrated about keeping up with fast-changing pandemic information.

“You’re already worried, you’re already scared, and so you just want something to be, I think, easy,” she said.

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Mental health services in Calgary want people to reach out during the COVID-19 crisis.
Mental health services in Calgary want people to reach out during the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

The most important piece of advice Thomson offered is to be compassionate with yourself for where you’re at because it’s such a unique situation.

“It’s OK to not want to do much. It’s OK to want to do everything — but have compassion for how you’re feeling in that day,” she said.

“Don’t be afraid to do that checkup with yourself in a day. Wake up and just see where you’re sitting and if you are feeling like, ‘Today, I just need to hang out on the couch and binge Netflix,’ that’s OK.”

READ MORE: COVID-19 pandemic taking toll on Canadians’ mental health: survey

Thomson called it a privilege to be able to help people through distressing situations.

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“To be that one that can sit there, and although I’m feeling it as well, I can sit in it, I can help support someone because they’re also supporting me at the same time,” she said.

Calgary Counselling Centre

The province announced $53 million in mental health funding on April 15 — welcome news to Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner with the Calgary Counselling Centre, which provides individual, couples and family counselling.

READ MORE: Kenney pledges $53M in mental health funding as Alberta sees no new COVID-19 deaths

“We don’t know yet whether we’re going to see any funds from that yet. We’ll be applying for funds in the tranches that we’re eligible for but I think this is a really important investment in mental health across the province,” she told Global News.

“We know from our experience with the fires in Slave Lake, with our involvement in High River, and then the fires in Fort McMurray, that the mental health needs of Albertans are going to be pretty significant for months to come.”

How has COVID-19 affected your mental health?
How has COVID-19 affected your mental health?. Getty Images

Like many other places, the centre has had to adapt to offer services in new ways. On March 16, the Calgary Counselling Centre transitioned to online services, Babins-Wagner said, to which the response has been positive.

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“It really demystifies how different they thought it would be. People that were originally frightened or really wanted to wait until this was over have been contacting us this past week and saying they really want to start now,” Babins-Wagner said.

“The volumes we are seeing are pretty huge.”

READ MORE: New technology focuses on mental wellness for Albertans during COVID-19 pandemic

In the last month, the centre — which has been around for more than 57 years — has done about 3,000 counselling sessions, according to Babins-Wagner.

“We’re thrilled with that because that’s what we’re here to do, and I expect based on our experience working in the flood or working with people post-flood, I expect those numbers to increase pretty substantially over the next weeks and months to come,” she said.

Calgary Counselling Centre ramps up remote services to meet mental-health needs
Calgary Counselling Centre ramps up remote services to meet mental-health needs

Common concerns the centre is hearing deal with loneliness and uncertainty, Babins-Wagner said.

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“What people are telling us is that they’re lonely, they’re feeling isolated, they’re feeling disconnected from people,” she said.

“They’re very worried about financial distress. They’re worried about their kids’ schooling. They’re worried about if they’re unemployed, they’re worried about what kind of jobs are going to be available for them after the fact. For a number of our clients, this might be the first time in their lives that they’ve not had work.”

Babins-Wagner said the additional stress might be compounding already-present problems.

“I think all of this is happening in addition to normal issues that people deal with all the time: anxiety, stress, relationship problems, issues managing kids,” she said.

“So we have kind of this layer of the impact of the pandemic overlaying what we would call the normal problems we would all have day to day in managing our lives.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) also offer ways of getting help if you or someone you know may be suffering from mental health issues.

Alberta Health Services has a list of supports here.