The Trauma and Attachment Report recently interviewed Karen Letofsky, Executive Director of the Distress Centre; a 24-hour crisis line in Toronto that has been providing support to individuals in current or recent distress. Karen speaks with us about how the centre functions and the various services it provides to the community.
Q: How long has the Distress Centre been providing service?
A: The Distress Centre is one of the oldest continuing crisis lines in all of Canada. It took its first call on November 1, 1967.
Q: Can you describe the role the Distress Centre plays for a person experiencing a crisis?
A: The Distress Centre provides an emotional safety network for the city in the sense that it is a point of access for individuals who are vulnerable and experiencing a crisis. It also serves a pivotal role in suicide intervention and prevention. Fifty percent of calls come after hours when other services are closed. In that sense, the Distress Centre is both a cushion between the individual and other ongoing support resources and a direct linkage for the person to emergency services. In a nutshell, the Distress Centre provides psychological first aid.
Q: What are some of the challenges that an individual who calls may be coping with?
A: Callers may be experiencing situational distress, posttraumatic stress, family violence, or may be at risk for suicide. Many callers are experiencing chronic social isolation as a result of ongoing mental and physical health problems as well as attempting to cope with the residual impact of poverty and lack of education or social skills. How I would describe it is that we offer multiple support services through one central point of access.
Q: What can someone who calls the Distress Centre expect?
A: Above all, a caller can expect respect and no judgment. They will encounter a support worker who is willing to be emotionally available and will respond effectively to help validate the caller’s experience. The staff will help the caller work through their emotions, and assist the individual to identify the various options available to them.
Q: How does the Distress Centre provide a means of coping for individuals who are experiencing hardship?
A: The Distress Centre bears witness, which is an important piece for individuals who are experiencing emotional pain. It is an opportunity to help the caller cope with the pain in the sense that they are able to express their emotions and seek support strategies. The Distress Centre is an excellent after hours support in addition to other counselling or other mental health services the individual may be receiving. In particular, if callers are between counselling sessions, or other types of therapy, if they are experiencing emotional distress or are feeling overwhelmed, the Distress Centre will help them manage these emotions in the short term.
Q: Are you able to see the effect of the Distress Centre if individuals experience a change?
A: Within a call, you can see the de-escalation and relief. Often callers thank the staff and express their appreciation. Fifty percent of our callers are return users of the line, so over time we can see some progression. In a single call, that progression may be less obvious. But, the call may also help by preventing the individual from feeling worse.
Q: What other services besides 24-hour telephone support are available?
A: The Distress Centre provides face-to-face counselling programs for individuals and families impacted by suicide or homicide. There is also a very active community outreach program, which helps organizations provide skills-training and information workshops. This program networks with other organizations to provide neighbourhood and city-wide emergency response teams where volunteers are able to utilize their skills in emergency situations. Finally, the Distress Centre has a couple of dedicated partnership lines with emergency medical services. They provide services for situations such as if someone calls for an ambulance in a suicidal crisis, as well as a help line for physicians in training who themselves might be in crisis.
Q: Based on your experience with The Distress Centre, what advice can you give to family members or friends in supporting an individual who may be experiencing distress?
A: Do not try to rush the person through their expression of pain. Many people feel uncomfortable with the invitation to enter into someone else’s pain and find it difficult to resist trying to immediately fix the problem. For individuals who have experienced distress, they need a place to express their emotional pain and have their experience witnessed and validated. Often, the most helpful thing for a person in acute emotional pain is to have someone willing to listen to their story without judgment, so that, in the telling, they can gain their own perspective.
Q: How can someone become involved with the Distress Centre?
A: Services at the Distress Centre are provided by volunteers who are carefully selected, trained, and supervised. There are many opportunities to give back to the community and to make a difference. Personal growth and development are key to a good volunteer experience.
The Trauma and Attachment Report sincerely thanks Karen Letofsky and the Distress Centre for sharing their services with the community. Their phone number is (416) 408-HELP, and they are open 24 hours, 7 days a week.
– Amanda Bartella, Contributing Writer