Anita sitting at workstation in Calgary downtown office

As COVID-19 continues to affect all of us, conversations about mental health are more important and relevant than ever. Recent polls show that 50 per cent of Calgarians feel depressed as a result of the outbreak.

Distress Centre Calgary (DCC) provides support to people in our community facing mental health issues—vital work as an unprecedented number of Calgarians experience challenges that impact their mental health, such as job loss, financial instability, lack of access to basic needs, and isolation. DCC says that since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve heard from people in the 35-44 age group the most, citing a concerning increase in high risk calls. In September, there was a 69% increase in suicide-related contacts compared to the same month last year, and a 29% increase overall from January 26–September 30, as compared to the same time period last year.

We sat down (virtually!) with Anita Poffenroth, a volunteer at DCC, to hear her perspective on the situation. Anita supports callers in distress on DCC’s crisis line, which is available 24 hours a day. In this Q&A, she describes how the pandemic is impacting Calgarians’ mental health and what we can do to support ourselves and those around us.

First things first—how did you get involved with Distress Centre?

Anita Poffenroth: In 2016, I lost my youngest son to suicide and five months later, my other son decided to volunteer for DCC. He had a good experience, so when I was ready, I decided to become a volunteer too. The training is very in depth; it has now been moved online due to COVID-19.

How many calls do you take in a shift?

AP: It depends. Each shift is four hours long and they’re all different. Some shifts receive more calls than others. On an average day for the DCC line, I can take anywhere from five to 15 calls.

How have the calls changed with the pandemic?

AP: I’ve found the real difference is family members are more aware of changes in other family members. People are just noticing more when you’re in the same house for three months, which is actually a good thing. I get calls from parents worried about their kids, or a husband phoning for a wife (or vice versa). We hear about behavioural changes that can suggest a problem—for instance, that a family member is quieter all of a sudden, and not even talking to friends. Or they say things like, “I can’t do this anymore, I don’t like COVID-19, I don’t want to be stuck at home.”

We also get a lot of calls about loneliness, since there are a lot of people that are at home that have no one. They may not be in distress in the sense that they want to harm themselves, they’re just lonely and need someone to talk to them and support them.

What suggestions do you give callers to help them improve their mental health?

AP: We like to encourage callers to prioritize things they like doing. We ask them, “What do you enjoy? Do you like baking? Do you have any pets? Have you gone for a walk with your pets?” I believe that getting outdoors is helpful.

We also try to encourage supports, and suggest that people connect with friends over video chat instead of texting or calling so faces are visible.

In this time of uncertainty, how can our community support and take care of each other?

Be a support for your friends and family, and be observant. If you notice a different routine with your neighbour, you can offer to help them. Try to be proactive with helping someone instead of just saying, “I’m here if you need anything.”

For example, when we lost our son, my friend knew I wouldn’t want to cook or do anything. And even though I didn’t want to visit, she knew that I still needed to eat—so she dropped off a box of cheese and crackers and chicken wings and left. I don’t think we had to cook for a week, but we still had food. So I think it’s helpful to take the initiative.

Any last thoughts on your experience volunteering at DCC?

AP: I’m really proud and privileged to be volunteering at DCC. It’s a great organization with great supports for volunteers. And it’s really brought me out of my comfort zone!

I’ve always been an empathetic person, but I think I’ve gained even more empathy through this experience—I’ve learned that you never really know what someone’s story is.

Distress Centre Calgary is currently accepting volunteer applications! If you want to make a difference by providing compassionate support to callers in distress, please view available volunteer opportunities

United, we make the biggest difference!

Do you—or does someone you know—need help?

For immediate help, please call DCC’s 24-hour crisis line to talk to someone like Anita: 403-266-HELP (4357).

For non-urgent assistance, 211 is available 24/7 by phone, text or online chat—simply dial 211, text “INFO” to 211, or visit 211 is a free, confidential community and social services help line made possible by United Way of Calgary and Area. Find more supports for individuals here.