While we often encourage people with mental health crises to call for help, we rarely think about who is picking up the phone.

Jane (name changed for privacy purposes) is a former crisis line volunteer, who wanted to help her community in a unique way. It was something outside of her comfort zone.

Doe volunteered for four months and found the experience rewarding. She said she thinks it takes a lot of courage to call a crisis line because most people don’t address personal matters to strangers.

“It’s like their last resort. They are reaching out to someone and right away, they’re willing to tell you exactly how they’re feeling,” Doe said. “A lot of times, it’s horrific.”

However, she said the biggest shock wasn’t the circumstances the callers were in, but their willingness to show their vulnerability.

“I was blown away at people’s struggles, but also people’s strengths and people’s willingness to reach out,” Doe said.

An unexpected toll

Sometimes, operating a crisis line can take a toll on the volunteers based on their own personal experiences.

“Let’s say you’ve been sexually assaulted in your life, and as soon as you pick up the phone you hear ‘I just had this experience,'” Jane said. “All of a sudden you relate that experience way too much, so sometimes you can get triggered.”

However, the center provided many resources so the volunteers can take care of themselves and prepare for their shifts.


A black and white photo of a phone.
A former crisis line volunteer feels that calling a crisis line is a brave thing to do.

The former volunteer added that you’re able to empathize with the callers. “You connect with somebody on such a human level.”

A day in the life

Jane described a typical shift at her former placement. She said volunteering at the crisis line requires multi-tasking. This includes recording information such as phone number and location, categorizing the reason for calling, while talking to the caller.

In terms of how busy the center would be, the former volunteer said that it depends on the day. “Some days, there could be lots of calls,” Doe said. “Some days, there could be one call every two hours.”

Meanwhile, ConnexOntario , which provides confidential and free health services information for those struggling with mental illness, gambling, or substance abuse, will soon be changing to one line for all callers.

Changes to ConnexOntario

ConnexOntario has three separate helplines, for now. A Drug and Alcohol Helpline, an Ontario Problem Gambling helpline, and a Mental Health Helpline are available. Each helpline listens to the callers, provide support, and direct them to services that can help. However, they are not a counseling service.

Brad Davey, the executive director of ConnexOntario, said those three lines will soon merge to one. An Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care research project revealed crisis lines were seeing crossovers in different departments, so it made more sense to have one line instead of three.

“If we have a call going to the drug and alcohol helpline and during a conversation, clearly, there’s some mental health issues or some post-traumatic stress issues,” Davey said. “Vice-versa, a person calls us on the mental health helpline, and there’s also some underlying substance abuse issues.”

Fingers flipping through a phonebook on the crisis line page. Black and white photo.
ConnexOntario has seen more callers over the years for some of their crisis lines.

Are more people calling crisis lines?

ConnexOntario has witnessed other changes regarding crisis lines and reaching out for help over the past 10 years.

Davey said both the Drug and Alcohol helpline and the Mental Health Helpline saw a steady increase in the number of callers. In particular, the Mental Health Helpline saw more callers.

However, the Ontario Problem Gambling Helpline, along with similar helplines in North America and Australia, saw a drop since 2008.

“There’s no definite conclusion as to why volumes dropped so heavily with the gambling line in 2008,” Davey said.

One reason the number of callers have dropped may be because people have less disposable income from the recession, he explained. Another possible reason is people feel that unless they win the lottery or earn lots of money from the slot machines, they won’t have enough money for retirement.

Davey said that because of mental health initiatives, such as the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, more people are encouraged to talk about mental health.

“It’s just becoming much more acceptable for a person to acknowledge that they need some help,” Davey said. “That they’re anxious or they’re depressed.”

A typical day at the crisis line

Davey said that Mondays between 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the afternoon are usually the busiest. Many clinicians call the lines, addressing patients who were emitted to the emergency department over the weekend.

Crisis line staff can redirect the caller to emergency services, or to Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Middlesex support line if they are not in crisis. Operators also have suicide intervention training so they can act accordingly to mentions of suicide.

When can we expect the changes to ConnexOntario?

The Drug and Alcohol, Ontario Problem Gambling, and Mental Health Helpline will merge sometime between late January and early February. The exisitng numbers will stay active, but will transfer to the main line for ConnexOntario. The  ConnexOntario website will also be updated in the near future.

If you need help, here are some resources that may help you:

London and Region Mood Disorders Self-Help Group

London Middlesex Suicide Prevention Council: 1-844-360-8055

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Canadian Mental Health Association Reach Out: 1-866-933-2023

Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600

If you are in a serious non-threatening crisis, call 911. 


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