Suicide prevention services hit hard by labour shortage

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Suicide prevention services in the Eastern Townships are stretched close to the limit in light of the province’s ongoing labour shortage.

Both the Centre de prévention du suicide de la Haute-Yamaska-Brome-Missisquoi (CPSHY), based in Granby, and JEVI, its Sherbrooke counterpart, have had to reduce services and delegate certain services out of the region due to a lack of trained personnel.

“We’re in a situation where we’ve had to modify our services and opening hours due to a lack of staff,” says CPSHY director Anne Jutras. “We should have four trained personnel per shift, but now we only have one counsellor and one clinical co-ordinator.”

As a result, since September, the CPSHY crisis line has only been available eight hours per day instead of the usual 13. Calls that arrive outside those hours are rerouted to a crisis line in the Montérégie region, or to Info-Social 211. The CPSHY only has one bilingual counsellor, according to Jutras, forcing existing staff to refer anglophone callers to outside organizations.

JEVI has suspended its in-house crisis line completely since Oct. 26 due to a lack of staff, and all calls are directed to Info-Social, according to JEVI assistant director Sébastien Doyon. He is currently looking for two counsellors, and says “everything is a bit more precarious” when the service is short-staffed.

According to Jérôme Gaudreault of the Centre de prévention du suicide du Québec, suicide prevention services across the province are dealing with a lack of counsellors. “We’re constantly hiring, because turnover is huge,” he says.

While Info-Social and other services around the province are able to keep the crisis lines functioning, it has become progressively more difficult for JEVI and the CPSHY to serve their clientele.

Jutras and Doyon say the absolute number of calls they receive isn’t markedly higher, but people who do call are in more complex and difficult situations, without access to many of their usual coping mechanisms. “We haven’t necessarily received more calls, but the calls we do get are from people in greater distress,” Jutras says. “Instead of talking to a person for 30 or 40 minutes, we’re talking for an hour or more and then making three or four follow-up calls. The [follow-up] services aren’t always there, and if a caller doesn’t get the services they need, they’ll end up calling us back.”

The situation also affects the remaining counsellors’ ability to be at their best at work. “We need to take care of them if we expect them to take care of the callers,” says Doyon, who recently put in place a phone support line for counsellors.

Doyon says that over the past 12 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of people seeking mental health support, and support systems haven’t grown to accommodate that increase.

Jutras says community-based crisis intervention services like the CPSHY have been underfunded and understaffed for years. “We entered the pandemic with a few pre-existing conditions,” she says. “For example, we can’t offer staff the same pay and benefits as the public health system because we don’t have the budget, and at some point [employees] need to do what’s best for their families.” The employees who choose to stay with community organizations, she says, are exhausted, overworked and worried that people who need help will ultimately lose access to services. “You can only stretch a rubber band for so long until it snaps.”

Additionally, she says community organizations are filling some of the gaps left by a public health system that has been forced to reorient many of its resources to fighting COVID. “In light of the pandemic, clinical staff have been reassigned to COVID-related tasks, and some services were no longer offered, so we also had to start offering services that weren’t part of our mandate. We don’t have the staff to continue doing that,” says Jutras. “We can’t keep going the extra mile, and it’s the clients who suffer. Some might fall through the cracks.”

Stéphane Tremblay, CEO of the CIUSSS de l’Estrie, said the CIUSSS was “actively working with community organizations and family medicine clusters (GMFs)” to manage the strain on the public mental health care system caused by pandemic-related staff reassignment. “We are able to be there for the people who need us,” he said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call Info-Social 211 or 1-866-APPELLE or visit at any time to be connected with a counsellor in the official language of your choice.

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