A Fort McMurray crisis hotline has been inundated with calls, including from residents contemplating suicide, as the Alberta city nears the 18-month mark since the massive wildfire.
Some Other Solutions (SOS), a local society for crisis prevention, says the total number of calls to its crisis hotline for the January to November period has jumped to 900 so far this year, 30 per cent more than the 600 in all of 2015. In 2016, the hotline handled 400 calls.
The spike in calls this year comes as the northern Alberta community is still recovering from the wildfire that ripped through the community in May 2016, destroying hundreds of homes and leveling entire neighbourhoods in the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.
“An alarming number [of hotline calls] that we are seeing is the number of times that people are calling in and they are referencing suicide,” SOS executive director Jason King said. “Right now, that’s up significantly.”
Calls about suicidal thoughts have doubled from 73 in 2015 to 155 this year. A total of 54 were recorded in 2016.
Reading into the numbers
King said the numbers are a sign the wildfire and the economic downturn have affected people’s mental health.
In the early days after the wildfire, Fort McMurray saw an outpouring of money and moral support, but as the recovery wears on, some are finding it difficult to cope, he said.
But while the numbers are worrying, he says he is glad so many people are getting help.
“When these numbers go up, is it a bad thing? I don’t necessarily see it in that light,” King said. “I see it in the sense that people are recognizing where they are — reaching out for help.”
The breaking point
Local Fort McMurray radio announcer JD Hunter, a mental-health advocate, says those numbers don’t surprise him.
He said the economic downturn, and then the punch of the wildfire, brought many in the oilsands capital to their breaking points — including himself.
One Saturday evening, Hunter feared he would harm himself when he saw the extent of the wildfire damage in the subdivision of Abasand.
“Seeing a friend’s house completely gone just totally wrecked me,” Hunter said. “And late Saturday night at 11.30, I realized I needed to reach out and I needed to talk someone.
“So I called the help line, and the person on the other end just spoke with me for an hour and a half.”
‘So much stigma’
Jay Telegdi was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has struggled with suicidal thoughts before and since the wildfire.
He hasn’t used the crisis hotline, but does use a mental-health safety plan he has developed. Telegdi has a list of friends and family who are available and expect him to call when he’s having a bad day or thoughts of harming himself.
Telegdi sees the increased calls to the crisis line as a positive thing, but wonders about Fort McMurray’s most vulnerable individuals, and whether they are getting the message that help is available.
He worries about the region’s Indigenous and rural residents, who aren’t always as connected to services as those who live in Fort McMurray.
“While it is good that people are seeking more services,” Telegdi said, “you’ve got to know the people that are putting their hand up, that need help, is just the tip of the iceberg. Because there is so much stigma around this still.”