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Economic pressures taking a toll on mental health of Albertans, support agencies say

Agencies providing mental health services in Calgary and southern Alberta say cost-of-living pressures are increasing the intensity of need for support in the community.

Over the holidays, Distress Centre Calgary heard from many people struggling with loneliness and isolation.

“The people that do reach out are the ones that are really needing the service,” said Robyn Romano, CEO of the distress centre.

According to Romano, the number of people looking for help over Christmas and through the year hasn’t changed dramatically.

What has changed, though, is the complexity of the need.

It’s a trend she saw all through 2023.

“Mental health is being impacted by the affordability, which is being impacted by the cost of inflation and the housing crisis. So we’re definitely seeing an increased need in the number of things people are needing help and support with,” she said.

“The one thing that can make a difference is that human connection and just for those few moments not having to feel alone.”

Distress Centre Calgary provides a number of services, including 24-hour phone, on-line chat and text crisis lines, specialized teen support and in-person crisis counselling.

According to Romano, while clients sought support for one key issue a few years ago, they’re coming forward with five or six concerns now.

That translates into more time spent with each person through the centre’s various platforms.

Robyn Romano wears a blue blouse as she sits at a table and looks directly into the camera.
Robyn Romano, CEO at Distress Centre Calgary, said the cost of living, inflation and the housing crisis are all increasing the complexity of mental health needs. (Gilmour Photography)

“Three years ago, our average crisis call was about 10 minutes. Now our average crisis call is close to 20 minutes. So it has exponentially increased.”

Text and online chat support can take up to an hour, said Romano.

“We’re seeing a lot of people reach out with anxiety and depression. On our crisis services, suicidal ideation is still in the top things people are reaching out with.… That really leads to a level of heaviness in our community.”

As a result, the service is looking for more volunteers.

At the Calgary Counselling Centre, demand has returned to pre-pandemic levels. But staff there are also seeing a change in the struggles their clients are facing.

“People are concerned about food security, housing security, employment security. They’re concerned about their kids and their future,” said Cathy Keough, director of counselling initiatives at the centre.

According to Keough, anxiety, depression and couples counselling are the key drivers of their demand.

 Albertans are under a lot of pressure, she said.

“We are seeing a lot more complexity as people navigate more complex lives. But we saw that build through the pandemic. And I think, although conditions have changed a great deal, there’s still people feeling and facing a lot of pressure and uncertainty and not really having a sense of what’s coming next.”

While demand is steady, Keough believes that’s a positive sign.

“We’re pleased to see more people reaching out and considering mental health as part of their overall health, not just maybe something to do when you’re in a crisis or a real challenge.”

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