‘There’s a great need right now’: Calgary’s Distress Centre short of crisis line volunteers

George Coutts has been volunteering at Distress Centre Calgary since 2007.

“I realized there were a lot of people that were hurting and they needed help. I found an advertisement one morning on the CTrain going downtown and I called and 15 years later, I’m still here,” Coutts recalled.

The retired oil and gas worker doesn’t have training in social work or psychology but he does have a big heart.

“I find it very fulfilling.  Everybody has a need and if we can just listen to them and validate them… You can do this.  You just need to be a caring person that would like to help people,” Coutts said.

Read more: City sees spike in crisis calls amid COVID-19 pandemic: Calgary Distress Centre

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There are currently 170 crisis line volunteers, but the organization needs closer to 250 volunteers.

“There’s a great need right now,” said Mikaela Osmak , a quality assurance team lead with Distress Centre Calgary. “When the pandemic broke out in 2020, we saw that that affected our volunteer pool,”

Osmak said from mid March of 2020 to mid June, volunteering was put on hold, with staff answering calls instead.

Eventually, the organization launched a remote volunteer position for texts, chats and emails. But as priorities and commitments changed for the volunteers who used to come in to the office to take calls, some have not returned.

Read more: Mom of former NHL player speaks out about suicidal plans in effort to help Distress Centre Calgary

“I can’t speak too much as to why folks aren’t coming back on site. We do have quite a bit of interest in volunteering remotely, which is wonderful, but we are really hoping to bring people back on site,” Osmak said.

The concern is that callers may not always have someone to speak to.

“Having those gaps in the schedule and not always being able to guarantee that we have solid coverage on the lines — that is the most salient impact I would say,” Osmak said.

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Distress Centre Calgary responded to over 56,000 calls in 2021.

The number of calls hasn’t increased since the pandemic started. But the nature of the calls has become more intense.

“The complexity of the calls and also the suicide related contacts has increased,” Osmak said.

Read more: City of Calgary, CPS launch pilot program to divert 911 calls to community resources

The top four issues people called about in 2021 were anxiety, depression, family relationships and suicide ideation.

Free training is provided for volunteers and they’re asked to take on 4 four hour shifts each month for a year.

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