Youth mental health organization needs volunteers to meet demand

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, one youth mental health organization is seeing no signs that the demand for their support will slow down — and they say they need more help themselves.

Kids Help Phone has about 1,600 volunteers available each month to answer calls and texts from kids across the country.

But to really meet the needs of the young people reaching out, the director of its clinical operations in Ottawa says they need more hands on deck. 

“We’d need probably about 2,000 volunteers active monthly. So we’re looking for about 400 more active volunteers on a monthly basis,” Sarah Benkirane said.

The national charitable organization offers 24/7 bilingual mental health support, both by text and phone calls, for young people in crisis. 

There are currently 270 volunteers in Ottawa helping out. But since schools and other pre-pandemic activities have resumed, the agency has seen a decline in the number of people signing up to help, Benkirane said.

“We’re managing with the team that we have,” said Benkirane. “But we want to make sure that we have enough volunteers, that volunteers can take time off when they need to.”

Before the pandemic started, Kids Help Phone was averaging about 1.9 million interactions each year. In 2021, it recorded 4.6 million.

Since March 1, 2020, around the time the pandemic started, the agency said it has had more than 17,000 “texting interactions” and taken more than 10,000 phone calls from people in Ottawa.

“The demand is definitely higher than before the pandemic,” Benkirane said.

Pandemic burnout 

There are several reasons that youth are seeking mental health support in increasing numbers this year, said Dr. Gail Beck, clinical director of youth psychiatry with The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. 

For one, when classrooms temporarily shut down in January due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, it took a toll on both students and families, Beck said.

“When they lost a lot of contact with their friends that they would have had in school, that was a particularly difficult period,” she said.

Dr. Gail Beck, seen here in 2016, says there are several reasons young people may be seeking out support in increasing numbers, from COVID-19 school shutdowns to the stressful state of world events. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Another reason is that more young people are absorbing distressing events in the world through outlets like social media, Beck said, and that’s adding to the stress they’re already feeling.

“We found that a lot of youth — and not just youth of Ukrainian descent — have been very upset by the war in Ukraine,” Beck said. “It really is making them very fearful.” 

Beck imagines that Kids Help Phone is experiencing a dwindling number of volunteers in part due to burnout. It’s something she and other frontline workers have been familiar with over the course of the pandemic. 

“You can be resilient and you can endure for a period of time. But when the stress continues in one way or another, sooner or later, you need to take a break yourself,” Beck said.

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