Calls for help overwhelm Distress Centre
A feeling of dread overcame Colleen Mayer when the thought occurred to her.
She wondered: What if her son Daryl had made a last desperate call for help before he took his own life on March 25, 2015, and what if that call was answered with a busy signal?
“If that was his last call, it mortifies me,” she said.
Mayer has called the Distress Centre Niagara’s 24-hour crisis phone number repeatedly in the past several weeks — after recent deaths in St. Catharines brought the issue to the forefront in the community.
She was testing the service to see if she could get through to a crisis worker, but her calls were almost always answered with the repetitive beep of a busy signal.
Mayer will never know if her 24-year-old son made a last call for help, but she said the uncertainty is enough to make her worry about others who may now be facing the same despair that claimed Daryl’s life.
“That is why this needs to change,” she said.
Mayer has recently teamed up with like-minded St. Catharines residents, planning to incorporate as a nonprofit organization called Niagara United to address social problems gripping the community. Several members of the group met at a downtown St. Catharines café on Friday, and again called all four of the Distress Centre’s 24-hour crisis lines only to hear busy signals.
That scenario — a desperate call for help being answered with a busy signal — also fills Stacy Terry with a feeling of dread.
“We absolutely share that concern,” she said.
But Distress Centre Niagara’s executive director said the organization’s volunteers are being overwhelmed.
“We receive over 15,000 calls a year. That’s about 288 calls a month. The demand is high for our services,” she said.
Terry said there’s currently no way to track the number of people who have called for help, only to give up after hearing a busy signal.
“I wish I had those numbers,” she said. “I wish we did have the technology to track our abandon rates. That is another option that we’ve looked at with the distress line.”
Although the organization is continually recruiting, screening and training volunteers, she said it would take at least 250 people required to meet the need — more than twice its current number of volunteers.
“If people have an interest and a desire to help in their commu-
nity in this way, the Distress Centre is an excellent place to come and be that front line support to this community,” Terry said. “We’re working with the most vulnerable and working with people who need our support.”
Even if Distress Centre Niagara could bring in enough volunteers, Terry said some callers might still get a busy signal depending on how busy they are.
Mayer said other crisis lines in the region — Pathstone Mental Health’s youth crisis line at 1-800263-4944, and Canadian Mental Health Association’s Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) line at 1-866-550-5205 — are promptly answered by either a crisis worker or an automated system. And if those agencies can do it, she wonders why the Distress Centre can’t do the same.
While some people have said they’d rather hear a busy signal so they know someone is there answering phones, others would rather leave a message or wait for the next available volunteer.
“We advertise as a confidential service and people choose to call us sometimes because we don’t subscribe to call display,” Terry said.
Terry said she had hoped to work with members of the recently formed group after meeting them at a Niagara Suicide Prevention Coalition meeting earlier this week.
“I wish they would have talked about further solutions that they saw and given the opportunity for us to share with them some of our struggles, particularly around the community coming together in that call out for individuals who want to help,” she said.
Niagara United is also recruiting volunteers through its website, asking for people willing to visit areas in the community where recent deaths have occurred to help people in distress. More information is available on the group’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/niagarastandsunited; and its website: niagaraunited.org.
Colleen Mayer, left, meets with like-minded community members concerned about recent suicides in the city.