WATERLOO -- Calls to a mental health hotline in the Waterloo area have spiked more than 44 per cent since the COVID-19 pandemic began, new figures from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) of Waterloo Wellington show.

In a presentation at the Waterloo Region’s weekly COVID-19 update, CMHA Waterloo Wellington’s chief executive Helen Fishburn said calls to the Here 24/7 helpline soared from 4,500 per month in March 2020 to 6,500 in the same month this year.

“Many folks that we’re seeing through Here 24/7 are people that have had to reach out for the first time and have never needed that help before,” Fishburn said. “COVID-19 is the number one reason why people are calling.”

The statistics paint a stark picture of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health among people in the Waterloo region and across Canada.

A national poll from CMHA and the University of British Columbia of about 3,000 Canadians found 77 per cent of people are feeling negative emotions, with 80 per cent feeling worried, anxious, bored, stressed, lonely, isolated or sad.

The number of people experiencing suicidal thoughts has risen from 2.5 per cent before the COVID-19 pandemic hit to 8 per cent, according to CMHA’s poll.

Across CMHA Waterloo Wellington’s coverage area, some 3,625 people are waiting for ongoing mental health or addiction care.

Of those, 2,044 live in Waterloo Region.

The longest waitlists are for high-intensity services, including housing and psychiatric care.

“People can’t wait for this care,” Fishburn said. “We have to do better.”

She said more people are also experiencing what’s been dubbed “panger” – pandemic-induced anger – triggering shorter fuses and abrupt feelings of being upset or frustrated.

“It’s important to acknowledge the challenge and feelings of people who are struggling,” said Waterloo Region's chair, Karen Redman.

She called the CMHA Waterloo Wellington’s presentation “sobering.”

Guelph resident Holly Sabara said she’s been struggling emotionally amid the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m a mom, I have three boys. I work full-time and trying to juggle online learning and working and keeping the house up, I’m struggling like I’ve never before,” she said. “The isolation … is really just exacerbating it.”

Sabara is receiving support from CMHA Waterloo Wellington along with two of her children.

“Children are struggling through this pandemic the same as adults are,” she said. “I think reaching out is something that you have to do when they appear in crisis, and my children have appeared in crisis.”

She said CMHA provides the services her kids need to get through the day-to-day, adding her middle son has seen marked improvements since working with a counsellor.

“He’s so much more self-assured and feels so much better about managing all the load that is on his little shoulders,” Sabara said.

Although it is Mental Health Week in Canada, Sabara said she hopes the conversation continues even past this week.

“It’s absolutely not something that should be taboo. It’s affecting everybody to some degree or another and we need to be talking about it more than just during mental health week.”

Despite the rising demand for mental health resources in the region – Fishburn said requests for support surged at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and still haven’t levelled off – anyone struggling is still urged to seek help.

CMHA Waterloo Wellington has shifted to virtual supports but is still offering some in-person services.

“There have been record numbers of people reaching out this year,” she said. “We’re really encouraging people to reach out. Please don’t stop.”

But it may take until well after the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control to see the full impact on the mental health of people in Waterloo Region, Fishburn said.

“Sadly, right now we’re still in the water of this tsunami,” she said. “Until that water recedes and we’re on solid ground, we won’t know the damage and destruction it has caused.”


CMHA Waterloo Wellington Here 24/7 Helpline: 1-844-437-3247

Website: Here4Help.ca

If you are in an urgent crisis, call ConnexOntario at 1-866-531-2600 or Canada Suicide Prevention Services at 1-833-456-4566 or text START to 741741.