The rising cost of energy, housing, food, and basic needs has caused an ongoing affordability crisis that affects everyone in our community. In other crises, we have an expectation that whatever is affecting us will pass in time. But the prolonged affordability crisis we face represents an unprecedented impact on our mental health that, in turn, puts great pressure on the agencies that provide mental health services.
“So many people, even those who wouldn’t consider themselves ‘low income’, are now living in a scarcity mindset,” says Karen Young, president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area. “That mindset erodes family life and the social fabric of our community. It erodes relationships and makes people feel disconnected. And for many people, it erodes hope.”
While most social service agencies are feeling an increase in demand right now, those that specialize in mental health and urgent distress support are feeling significant pressure. 211, a free social service resource and 24-hour crisis response line operated by Distress Centre and funded, in part, by United Way, has received nearly 40,000 points of contact so far this year with 16.6 per cent of those contacts being related to mental health. Of those, 10.3 per cent mentioned financial need and housing.
Robyn Romano, CEO of Distress Centre, says many of the calls they receive through 211 and the crisis line are more dire than previously seen. “The longer people feel the pressures of affordability, the more likely they are to have no hope that their situation will improve,” she says. “More and more people in community are considering suicide as an option. It’s a terrible reality, but we are grateful we can help folks when they need it most.”
Calgary Counselling Centre (CCC) is also recording an increase in demand for counselling services along with an increase in the need for subsidies. These subsidies ensure everyone receives support no matter their financial situation.
“We know that the community need for counselling services is even higher than what we’re receiving,” says Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of Calgary Counselling Centre. “Counselling always gets trumped by basic needs, so if you’re struggling to put food on the table, you’re going to think you can’t afford to work with a counsellor. That’s why our subsidies are so important, especially in times like these.”
As with many of their social sector peers, Romano and Babins-Wagner both point to the increased complexity of issues facing the people they serve.
“In that past, people might call us with one or two issues,” says Romano. “Our staff could help them with those issues on a single call and feel like they were really getting that person set on the right path. But now, someone may call with five or six interconnected issues, and that requires a lot more time and effort to get that caller the help they need. You can’t just address one issue and hope the others work out.”
For both leaders, the goal is the same: to help people struggling with their mental health whether it’s their first call in a moment of crisis or an ongoing process of counselling. However, the combined increase and complexity of mental health needs is forcing both organizations to adapt.
“It’s a challenging time for us; it’s a challenging time for the whole sector,” says Romano. “We are making hard decisions right now, especially about how we maintain a healthy workforce and still provide the services that are so important to our citizens.”
“Our own staff are under the stress and pressure of the affordability crisis,” adds Babins-Wagner. “We need to ensure that our team and our organization is resilient enough so that we can be there for the people in our community who need us.”
For Karen Young and her team at United Way, CCC and Distress Centre are standout examples of organizations adapting to have maximum impact in the community in periods of crisis and into the future.
The pandemic accelerated CCC’s digital transformation. Currently, 95 per cent of the organization’s services are conducted online and CCC’s entire administration system is digital.
“While we have saved money in some areas, the two most significant benefits are for our clients and our business,” says Babins-Wagner. “Our clients love easy and accessible online services, and our staff adapted quickly because it is fast and equally easy for them to use. By being entirely digital on the business side, we are not just more efficient—we are able to capture valuable metrics that help us better serve Calgarians. We’ve proven that going digital is a smart way to transform and improve a critical and personalized social service.”
Despite these unprecedented challenging times, Romano remains optimistic that the social services sector can change to become more resilient and help more Calgarians. That optimism is motivated by her view that there is an increasing willingness by organizations to collaborate and share. Distress Centre, in partnership with United Way and other community partners, is leading the creation of a Community Information Exchange (CIE). While still in the development phase, the CIE aims to seamlessly connect a full web of social services in Calgary to create a system of support that truly wraps around a person or family in need.
“Yes, things feel dark in our community and in the social sector,” says Romano, “but we are all working more collectively and collaboratively than ever before, and we are going to serve Calgarians better because of it.”
“We can do things differently and better, but we can’t do that on our own.”
These types of partnerships and collaborations are a key part of creating a sustainable future for Calgary’s social sector. United Way is working with many partners to create new systems, help agencies build capacity, and develop innovative solutions to the big issues that threaten the strength of our community.
Calgarians can support the urgent work of community agencies by donating to the Community Impact Fund. This fund is the best way for Calgarians to make an impact in this period of crisis where adaptability and urgent response is critical. Through the Community Impact Fund, United Way is funding agencies and programming in the four focus areas of socioeconomic well-being, mental health, social inclusion, and healthy relationships.
The affordability crisis is causing a ripple throughout our social sector. In part 1, we examined the struggles facing frontline agencies.