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Greater Victoria centre a saviour for those in mental health crises

Victoria News - 2/7/2024

WARNING: This story discusses suicide.

An organization that fields thousands of calls from people in crisis needs more volunteers to meet the demand and is looking for supportive individuals who can bring some empathy to those struggling.

Greater Victoria makes up 40 per cent of all the suicide-related calls the Vancouver Island Crisis Society answers, according to executive director Elizabeth Newcombe. The centre received 28,541 calls in total last year and referred 121 of those to either 911 or a crisis emergency team on the Island.

With those referrals making up two per cent of calls, the other 98 per cent see the centre listen and help plan some next steps for those struggling. Callers are connected to a responder and are then able to unload their dark thoughts, some of which might cause people to switch off or change the subject during their day-to-day lives.

"We're not sending police to the door. That's the whole purpose of a crisis line," Newcombe said.

The Island Crisis Society is one of Canada's 40 call centres supporting the newly formed 988 suicide helpline, which has received over 25,000 calls in its first two months. The centre tries to educate people about why myths and beliefs around suicide ideation are harmful. It points to how there's no such thing as someone calling just to get attention.

"Our motto is if someone's seeking attention because they have suicide ideation, then give that attention and find out what's going on," the executive director said.

Attempts to "silver-line" a problem by telling people, 'You don't know how good you have it,' or 'You get straight A's, why are you upset,' can also be harmful, Newcombe said.

"We all have a misperception of what creates suicide ideation in anybody. We don't pick and choose what the crisis is."

Newcombe said that the crisis centre doesn't have a checklist they go off of to see if a person might be in crisis. The calls host a simple conversation with the caller, which allows responders to assess the person's suicide risk.

Helping those in crisis can be a harrowing yet rewarding position. Harrowing because responders can't know whether a dropped call means the individual ran out of battery or made an attempt at self-harm. The rewarding part is the centre knows its efforts have saved lives.

Sometimes their phones ring with calls of appreciation. Newcombe recounted how people have told the centre they were in a dark place when they called, but talking with a responder saved their life.

A lot of people who call the centre don't want to harm themselves, they just want the pain to stop, Newcombe said. Sometimes the key is just lessening someone's pain so they can keep their head above water, she added.

"People have lived to tell the tale, and they're very glad that they're living now."

The centre is there for anyone no matter what they're going through. Newcombe recalled a talk she had with an elderly man where it was his first Christmas without his spouse of over 60 years.

"He was not necessarily in crisis, he just wanted to test it out and was really lonely."

If you feel like you are in crisis or are considering suicide, you can call the Crisis Centre BC suicide hotline at 1-800-784-2433, the Vancouver Island Crisis Society at1-888-494-3888 or dial 988.

Other resources include: Canada Suicide Prevention Service at Toll free: 1-833-456-4566. You can also text 45645 or visit the online chat service at crisisservicescanada.ca.