During pandemic, crisis line more essential than ever

A 24-hour, province-wide support line is providing mental health services for Indigenous communities across B.C.

CAPTION: KUU-US Crisis Services Team, L-R: Al Shewish-Tseshaht, Meranda Meyer, Kaelyn Vimhel, Angel Graitson-Métis, Rose Vandusen-Mi’kmaq, Kateri Deutsch-ɁEsdilagh, Estelle Edgar-Ditidaht, Ashley Amos-Hesquiat, Rhonda Ursel, Kathy Waddell-Métis. Photo Credit: KUU-US.


From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, the KUU-US Crisis Line Society received an increase of 142 percent in calls relating to loneliness and an increase of 198 percent for addictions. 

Based in Port Alberni, KUU-US provides crisis line services to Indigenous Peoples throughout B.C. KUU-US means “people” in the Tseshaht language.

KUU-US also has a youth crisis line, with staff trained in child and youth support. 

Liaison co-ordinator and supervisor of protocols Kateri Deutsch says there has been an increase in calls related to anxiety and isolation since the pandemic began.

Deutsch’s numbers tracking the increase are comparing Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 of this year to the same time period last year.

“I’ve noticed, specifically, an increase with Elders being affected,” she says.

“Just given the history, it’s bringing up memories from residential school. So those are triggers that can cause an increase in substance abuse. Sometimes a lot of Elders might be on their own.” 

Due to social-distancing measures, the pandemic has limited the range of in-person services Elders can access. 

“They’re really utilizing a lot of services for daily life,” explains Deutsch.

“And now with the shutdown of a lot of those services, it can be pretty hard. People who are used to having that face-to-face counselling, especially Elders who are attending counselling. A face-to-face relationship is so much more than talking to someone on the phone. You know, it’s so important to [our] culture to be able to look at someone.”

Deutsch is from ɁEsdilagh First Nation, with ties to Soda Creek FN. She has lived and worked in Nuu-chah-nulth territories on Vancouver Island for 20 years.

Deutsch says the increase in calls has specifically been related to substance abuse, correlating with stress and anxiety. She says that distancing and lockdown measures “means substance use going on at home, causing more relationship issues.”

Mental health issues increase  

According to the Crisis Services Canada website: “During times of such uncertainty and unpredictability, with a myriad of factors such as health concerns, economic stress and altered routines, increased stress is a normal, widespread reaction.” 

Data from a recent Statistics Canada crowdsourced survey shows that COVID-19 is impacting how Indigenous Peoples perceive their mental health.

Among the Indigenous participants surveyed, 38 percent reported fair or poor mental health since the pandemic began, while 60 percent described their mental health as having “worsened.”

CAPTION: How Indigenous people have found their mental health to be during COVID-19, as surveyed by Statistics Canada. Photo credit: Statistics Canada

To help combat this, Indigenous Services Canada announced on Aug. 25 in a press release that it will be providing $82.5 million to support Indigenous communities adapt and expand mental wellness services as COVID-19 continues.

“In almost all of the discussions that I have had with First Nations, Inuit and Métis representatives since the beginning of the pandemic, the importance of recognizing and supporting mental wellness as a core need of the COVID-19 response has been communicated regularly,” Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller stated in a press release.  

“Community-driven, culturally appropriate and timely mental health supports are critical to promote the well-being for anyone struggling to cope with the added stress and anxiety the COVID-19 pandemic has created.”

KUU-US crisis line is one example of culturally relevant services that could benefit from this type of support. 

“Our hope regarding the government’s announcement [is] to help Indigenous people struggling with the effects of COVID-19, and that these supports include cultural and traditional services to meet the needs of youth, families and Elders,” Deutsch says.

History of KUU-US 

 The KUU-US Crisis Line Society was formed in 1993 in response to a need for suicide prevention work in the community of Ahousaht, B.C.

A team of frontline emergency responders, counsellors and members of the general public gathered to set up the crisis line. It is unique in that it focuses on Indigenous callers.

Presently, crisis line staff are 70 percent Indigenous, says Deutsch. 

“We all have either come from an Indigenous background or have that training,” she says.

“Ideally, all of our phone support staff are Indigenous. Coming from that background … it could be praying in a traditional way with someone when you’re talking to them on the phone.”

The society is a non-profit charity organization that also provides crisis services through education, prevention and intervention programs. It is accredited through the American Association of Suicidology.

Staff are paid and trained employees rather than volunteers. Deutsch says she believes this raises commitment. She says she and her co-workers share several common traits key to their work: empathy and understanding. 

“We build relationships,” continues Deutsch. “Some people phone in, they might want to talk, but first they just want to know what we’re about. They just want to ask questions. And that’s fine as well. There’s no reason too small to phone … and a crisis might be different from one person to another.”

She says anonymity is important for many who call in, and in order to feel comfortable doing so. This is why staff will often refer callers to other services or local resources.

“It could be someone who’s never accessed services before,” says Deutsch, who notes that there is a “stigma attached.”

CAPTION: Impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous men and women across Canada, as surveyed by Statistics Canada. Photo credit: Statistics Canada.

In May 2016, KUU-US partnered with First Nations Health Authority to expand services to the entire province, beyond Nuu-chah-nulth territories.

Sharing cultural resources in the referral process is another unique feature of KUU-US. The society has an extensive referral database that Deutsch says is currently being updated.

She says the staff has had conversations with every band across B.C. to find out what traditional resources they offer to their community members, as a cooperative approach is key to their process. 

“I go into First Nations communities across British Columbia and set up crisis response protocols,” says Deutsch.

“[I] also work with hospital staff across British Columbia to set up what we call referral pathways. Same as the crisis response protocols in the community, but at the hospital level. So that if an Indigenous person who is suicidal presents at the hospital for suicide attempt or ideation … they’re being linked to our 24-hour crisis line.”  

They are also able to co-ordinate connections for people living away from their home community. For example, KUU-US may refer a service or contact that shares a caller’s background in order to grant them more familiarity and comfort. 

(Kateri Deutsch, KUU-US Crisis Services liaison coordinator and supervisor of protocols. Submitted photo)

Deutsch says a significant strength of KUU-US is the range of services for suicide prevention. 

“We have our safety monitoring program, where we actually make outgoing phone calls to people who are [at] risk,” says Deutsch. “Whether that’s been identified to us by someone who’s close to them, whether they phoned in themselves.”

The contact might also come through KUU-US’s pre-planned protocols with band office staff, a local health centre or referral pathways through local hospitals. 

“There are many different ways to access safety monitoring,” says Deutsch. “And I really think the traditional and cultural path back to that is our strongest.”

 

Reach KUUS-US at the numbers below, and find more information here, along with tips on how to take care of your mental and physical health as the pandemic continues here.

Adult/Elder Crisis Line: 250-723-4050

Child/Youth Crisis Line: 250-723-2040

Odette Auger - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Odette Auger is Sagamok Anishnawbek and has been living on the traditional territories of the toq qaymɩxʷ (Klahoose) also known as Cortes Island, for 21 years. Her journalism experience includes writing and producing for First People’s Cultural Council project, and local coop radio cortesradio.ca. Odette’s work is supported in part with funding from the Local Journalism Initiative in partnership with The Discourse and APTN.