Ashley Cummings knows all too well how the suicide rate among Inuit is one of the highest in the world, nine times the Canadian average.
Growing up in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, the 21-year-old lost a number of friends and family members.
“Suicide has been a very prominent part of my life since I was a young child,” she said.
“It’s touched every family member and every friend member I have.”
When she was 16, Cummings struggled with depression and contemplated taking her own life. Instead, she found a lifeline in the form of a text message conversation with an anonymous stranger from Kids Help Phone.
“It was definitely a very dark and painful time,” she recalled. “But they were able to figure it out and helped me take the advice and listen and get me out of that crisis mode.”
Kids Help Phone has provided counselling services to youth for over three decades, offering free 24/7 support by phone, online chat and text message in English and French. Last year, the Canadian charitable organization launched a new program, called “Finding Hope”, specifically aimed at supporting Indigenous youth.
“We’re looking at doing everything we can to ensure we’re reaching Indigenous young people where they live and meeting their unique needs,” said Deanna Dunham, manager of the charity’s Indigenous Initiatives.
As part of the program, Kids Help Phone is promoting and expanding its services in Indigenous communities, particularly in remote areas with limited access to mental health services.
“They may have a counsellor who visits a community maybe monthly and there are often long waiting lists. The waiting rooms are full,” Dunham said.
“We’re there for the young people between those sessions, while they’re on a list waiting to see a counsellor, when it’s Friday in the middle of the night and they don’t have anyone else to talk to. That’s the gap that we fill.”
At the start of the year, Kids Help Phone was receiving more than a thousand text messages per month from Indigenous youth.
And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked the biggest mental health crisis the organization has ever seen.
“Starting about mid-March, we saw contacts to our service double over last year,” said Chief Youth Officer Alisa Simon, explaining they’ve been contacted by around 1,500 youth per day. The charity has called emergency services eight to 10 times per day to respond to a person in distress.
“They’re dealing with isolation, they are stressed, more stressed than they’ve ever been before. There’s a lot of grieving and loss from young people who aren’t able to connect with their friends, maybe they’re missing graduation. And then we’ve also seen a real increase in contacts around other things like abuse or neglect. For some young people, home is not a safe place.”
Facing that unprecedented demand, Kids Help Phone called for back-up, asking ordinary Canadians to volunteer to provide emotional support anonymously over text message. The response was overwhelming: 9,000 Canadians submitted applications to volunteer.
“That is an unbelievable testament to me about Canadians saying they want to be making a difference during this time when we’re all struggling,” Simon said. “We are on track right now to train more people in the next few weeks than we have trained in the last two years combined.”
Thanks in large part to those volunteers, for the first time in its history, Kids Help Phone is also extending its services to adults and seniors, in response to growing demand.
“More and more adults are coming to us and they were starting the conversation with: ‘I’m so sorry, I’m not a kid but can I use the service?’ And we realized there aren’t enough places for adults who are also going through the same distress, the same isolation,” Simon said.
Unsurprisingly, the need has been greatest in places that were already struggling before the pandemic, including Indigenous communities with limited access to health services.
“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety, but the anxiety that indigenous youth feel is heightened,” Dunham said. “Hospitals are a flight away. The health-care facilities are not equipped to handle a pandemic. And we’re telling people over and over again to wash your hands, but we have 100 or so First Nations that are on water advisories right now where that might not be safe.”
Cummings, who now volunteers with Kids Help Phone as a member of the charity’s Indigenous Advisory Council, said the past few months have been difficult and stressful. But she’s relied on her friends and Kids Help Phone for support.
“I’m doing so much better now,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It definitely makes me emotional knowing that a lot of other youth are facing very similar or the same kind of circumstances, where it just feels like there’s too much.”
“My message would be to just give yourself one more day. It’s all about those little baby steps that build up to large feats of figuring out your mental health.”
Anyone who needs mental health support can reach Kids Help Phone by calling 1-800-668-6868, text 686868 or online here.