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Calls to Kids Help Phone soar amid pandemic

By: Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Young Canadians have reached out to Kids Help Phone more than 4 million times in 2020, signalling a sharp uptick in calls for help compared to previous years and a growing chorus of youth who continue to struggle under the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, the youth crisis hotline received 1.9 million calls, texts, and clicks on their online self-directed resources for help. Under the pandemic, that number has more than doubled.

Kids Help Phone now receives more than 800 calls and texts for help from children and youth across the country daily — about 10 of which are active suicide rescues where police are called for backup, said Kids Help Phone’s senior vice-president of innovation Alisa Simon. 

It’s a cascade of calls for help that 182 counsellors across the country, from Toronto to Vancouver, have had to answer from their own homes as they too have been confined to pandemic-mandated lockdown measures.

But the crisis line said they’ve been able to keep up with demand, with 50 additional counsellors to be hired by the end of the year, thanks to new federal funding. Kids Help Phone has also been able to train 4,200 volunteers to respond to texts from teens in distress this year alone, Simon said.

“We’re always hiring because we want to make sure that we have enough front-line staff to be able to meet demand,” Simon said. “We’re always training new crisis responders.”

Still, the volume of calls is unlike anything Kids Help Phone has experienced since its inception in 1989. Calls have been pouring in from children as young as five to young adults as old as 28, mainly to seek help for their mental and emotional health. 

Almost half of the calls come from Ontario, followed by Alberta and British Columbia. A majority call between the early hours of 12 a.m. and 4 a.m., according to newly released data by Kids Help Phone.

The main driver of calls, Simon said, has been isolation, with calls related to loneliness up 50 per cent from pre-pandemic rates. Others have been reaching out with concerns about missed milestones, like prom and graduation, and some expressed self-esteem and body image issues earlier in the pandemic.

Those who were returning to school in the fall, Simon said, expressed worry about getting sick with COVID-19. Those who opted for virtual learning felt grief about being unable to return to the physical classroom. 

“There were a lot of young people experiencing really different realities when school began based on whether or not they were going to be back in school or not,” Simon said.

Of the 4 million times people have reached out for help, 300,000 of those were one-on-one calls or texts — a 51 per cent increase from what Kids Help Phone saw last year. 

And it’s not only children and youth who are reaching out: Kids Help Phone launched a 24/7 text line this year for adults as well due to increase in demand. 

“Large numbers of adults are coming to us and saying, ‘I’m so sorry I’m not a kid, but can I talk to you?’” Simon said. 

Others have been reaching out through different means, including new services launched this year, such as a chat platform through Facebook and Wellness Together Canada, an online website that connects people with mental health supports and counselling services. 

This year also marked the first time Kids Help Phone began offering counselling services in Arabic alongside French and English.

Joanna Henderson, a youth psychologist and the executive director of Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario, which works to enhance and redesign youth mental health services in the province, said younger people in Canada have had a particularly difficult time with COVID-19, leading to a reliance on services like Kids Help Phone as they don’t know where else to turn. 

“Many young people have reported a deterioration in their mental health, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” Henderson said. 

Through a survey with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health of around 600 young people across Canada about their mental health since the pandemic began, Henderson found the reasons for the deterioration are not only tied to public health measures and social isolation, but also to changes to their schooling, as well as living arrangements and financial stresses. 

The findings also revealed youth with pre-existing mental and physical health conditions have been particularly impacted psychologically by the pandemic. 

As the number of young people reckoning with unprecedented stress on their mental health grows, so does the reliance on easy-to-access, centralized national services like Kids Help Phone, Henderson said, explaining the spike in calls for help.

“Kids Help Phone had the advantage of having a national single number, a single brand that people understood would be where you could get help,” Henderson said. 

But while Kids Help Phone offers an essential service for youth in crisis, Henderson said it’s important that youth have access to ongoing counselling and mental health services, as some may need more consistent care than one conversation with a crisis line counsellor. 

It’s a worry that Simon said she shares, adding that Kids Help Phone hires librarians who search for services in the community someone is calling from in order to help connect them to local services.

“We often are a front door for young people,” she said. “They come to us because they’re feeling distressed and they don’t know what to do.”

Another issue, Simon added, is that young people are facing very long waiting lists when trying to access mental health services, and many approach Kids Help Phone as they wait for longer-term help. Others reach out at odd hours, when their counsellor or other service provider may not be able to help.

“For us it is really about being that go-to place that young people know they can trust at any time,” Simon said. 

By the Numbers

 66 per cent of those reaching out to Kids Help Phone Canada-wide are between the ages of 14 and 24;

 40 per cent of Canada-wide calls are due to issues with mental or emotional health; 

 40 per cent of Canada-wide texts are due to relationship issues, and 39 per cent are due to anxiety and stress;

 In Ontario, the majority of those reaching out to Kids Help Phone are adults between the ages of 18 and 24 (38 per cent), followed by teens between the ages of 14 and 17 (28 per cent);

 In Ontario, more people are texting for suicide help (20 per cent) than calling (5 per cent);

 Calls for suicide are highest in the Northwest Territories (100 per cent), Newfoundland and Labrador (44 per cent), and New Brunswick (28 per cent). 

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

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