Katherine Hay, CEO of Kids Help Phone, on the surge in demand for support during Covid

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“We saw a 350 per cent increase in calls”: Katherine Hay, CEO of Kids Help Phone, on the surge in demand for support during Covid

Katherine Hay is the president and CEO of Kids Help Phone, which provides mental health support to youth across Canada. During the pandemic, her organization has seen a huge spike in calls, texts and online messages. Hay spoke to Toronto Life about what’s causing the surge and how Kids Help Phone mobilized to meet the increased need for support.

How has the pandemic affected what you do at Kids Help Phone?
During the first two or three months after Covid hit, we saw a 350 per cent increase in calls. We didn’t go dark for even one minute. When the pandemic hit, we didn’t say, “Well, we better start innovating.” We were built for something like Covid. We offer several different services: our phone line; our text line, Good2Talk; and a crisis service. Though it’s still human-to-human communication, our crisis text line uses machine learning to triage based on a texter’s severity of need. It looks for particular words that are more likely to indicate that a texter is in need of an active rescue.

Has the demand continued throughout the pandemic?
Yes. Even putting aside Covid, it hasn’t been a happy, sunshiny year. We saw a spike across all our platforms when the Australian bushfires started at the beginning of 2020. We saw another spike with the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash. Again after the Nova Scotia shootings, when grief went through the roof. The number of kids reaching out to us about racism and discrimination doubled in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. This was not new for Black and Indigenous youth, who know social injustice intimately, but those were some of the most distressed texters we’ve seen. They were also most likely to talk about suicide.

What other kinds of issues are these kids seeking support for?
A year ago, we saw a big increase in conversations around isolation, fear, anxiety and depression. As the pandemic has worn on, we’re continuing to see fear—of the virus, of parents getting sick, of kids getting sick themselves. Kids have also experienced a huge amount of loss and grief. They’ve lost their regular routines, friendships, school, graduation. Kids are also experiencing a lot of issues around gender and sexual identity, because they’re isolated from some of the people and places—like school guidance counsellors, teachers and friends—that might have offered support. The intensity of emotion has increased exponentially, too. Young people are having longer, heavier conversations with our counsellors. But we actually saw a dip in suicide and suicidal ideation at the beginning of Covid.

Interesting. What do you attribute that to?
I can only theorize. But at the start of the pandemic, many kids were at home in supported environments, with parents around. On the other hand, we saw an enormous increase—about 46 per cent—in kids speaking to us about abuse, whether sexual, physical or psychological. There are homes that aren’t safe. Kids who might have been getting support at school now had nowhere to go.

I’ve heard that eating disorders have also increased during Covid because people are stuck at home. Have you seen any evidence of that?
Yes. Year over year, we’ve seen about a 110 per cent increase in the number of calls we’ve received about eating disorders. Young people are telling us that they’re bored and not getting enough exercise. Also, they’re not getting a real view of the world. The only thing they’re seeing is perfection—on TV, on social media. And they can’t be as perfect as what they’re seeing, so they feel really bad about themselves.

What kinds of support do these kids receive when they reach out to Kids Help Phone?
Our job is to be there for young people in the moment. The wait time for a young person to see a psychologist can be 12, 18, 24 months. Our wait times are under five minutes. We’re there to complement and support the mental health system, but we can’t be the only solution. When kids reach out, we can direct them to resources on youth mental health services across the country. For example, if you’re a young person in Dryden, Ontario, who wants to come out but can’t tell your parents, and you’re now out on the street, our counsellors can locate LBGTQ support groups, food banks and shelters in Dryden. From our data, we know that 80 per cent of our callers feel better after speaking to us. More than 55 per cent will tell us something that they’ve never told anyone before. Another eight per cent say that if they hadn’t spoken to us, they would have gone to the emergency room.

How do you make sure young people know about Kids Help Phone and reach out when they need help?
We’re the only 24/7 bilingual mental health service for youth in Canada. Young people know about us and will find us. We’re all over social media—Twitch, Instagram, gaming sites. We make a concerted effort to get into their spaces. For example, Facebook Messenger is a big tool for Indigenous youth and adults who live in remote areas that might not have reliable cell service. So we built the technology and implemented a Facebook Messenger service in September. These young people who reach out to Kids Help Phone have a tremendous amount of courage. They’re reaching out because they have hope. They’re trying to get to tomorrow. With that hope and resilience, we can step in and make a difference. It’s not unfixable. Our young people are showing us what they need. That’s a silver lining.