The last couple of years have been extremely difficult for people and communities around the world, including those who work in healthcare and social services with the pandemic. Like in many other contexts, not only did COVID-19 pose its own unique challenges, but it emphasized the deep underlying problems that have been rampant long before the virus was discovered. Many healthcare workers were already experiencing burnout and conflicts within their workplace, yet often felt as though there were not many options to turn to for support.

That is why, in June of 2020, talks of starting the service Care to Speak began. Provided by the Canadian Mental Health Association, supported by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, and in partnership with SafeCare BC, Care to Speak serves as a platform to help support those working in healthcare. The Phoenix is grateful to have had the opportunity to talk about Care to Speak with Harjinder Janda and Kelsey Tkachuk, who play important roles as program coordinator and program promotion and recruitment coordinator. Together, Harjinder and Kelsey explained what Care to Speak is, why it is important especially in these times, and why UBCO students might be interested in taking on the role of a Peer Support volunteer.

Content Warning: The following article contains discussions on the importance of mental health support with brief mentions of feelings of hopelessness, workplace issues such as harrassment, and suicide. If you feel that you are in need of support, please feel free to refer to the resources listed below:

  • 24hr Crisis Helplines: 1-833-456-4566 or 1-866-277-3553 (Quebec)
  • Text to 45645 from 4:00pm-12:00am ET (1:00pm-9:00pm PT) (Text rates may apply)
  • UBCO Health and Wellness
  • UBCO students can contact anytime Monday to Friday, 9:00am-4:00pm through the website or by phone: 250-802-9270
  • Canadian Mental Health Association
  • Visit the website here for tips on how to get the help you need and how you can build a team of support
  • Specific support options can be found within their branches by location. You can visit the main website here to search for specific branches located near you.
  • Here are some of the branches here in British Columbia:

After graduating from UBCO, both Harjinder and Kelsey started with the Crisis Line under the Canadian Mental Health Association where they have since moved up into the positions they have now.

“Harjinder and I are both located in Vernon so we are with the Vernon Crisis Line and we started volunteering from there,” Kelsey explained. “From there, I became a casual and then I started working some administration for the Crisis Line and from there I came into the role I am in now.”

“Kelsey has been at the Crisis Line a bit longer than I have,” Harjinder said. “I started at the Crisis Line last year around this time. I still volunteer with the Crisis Line but I heard about this position opening up and asked my manager about it. Then I applied and got the role.”

When asked how and why Care to Speak started, Harjinder explained: “They started talking about it in June of 2020, when the pandemic was pretty chaotic in the world. It was funded to help frontline workers with their mental health support and give them the opportunity to have someone to talk to because a lot of healthcare workers are living alone or live in different locations and cannot talk to their loved ones or friends due to the odd hours that they work.”

As the program only recently began late last year, Harjinder added that “it has been developing and we have been trying to spread the word around to all healthcare sites.”

Despite being as new as it is, Care to Speak is still developing in ways that will allow it to provide services to an even broader demographic. “In 2022 of January, we are hoping to target the social service sector as well so we can divide the program into supporting healthcare workers and those that are working in the social services sector,” Harjinder stated.

The service currently offers support over the phone or through an online chat that allow service users to speak with the Peer Support volunteers. However, along with the other developments being made to the program, Harjinder shared how another way of reaching out will be available soon.

“Soon in the new year, [service users] will be able to text our peer support number,” she explained. “What we are wanting to add is a texting line to our phone number so that service users can reach out without relying on wifi or data.”

When Care to Speak first began, its primary focus was to those working in long-term care. However, as Kelsey and Harjinder revealed, they quickly opened up their services to anyone who works in healthcare, including those working in management positions and administration.

“Originally it was just geared towards those working in long-term care and that is a really niche market,” Kelsey pointed out. “Lots of healthcare workers in long-term care like nurses, care aides, and other positions like that are not always necessarily willing to reach out because they are commonly the caregiver and are not used to being somebody who has someone listening to them and taking care of their needs. So we wanted to help some more people, hopefully get some more calls, and more volunteers.”

In terms of volunteers, Harjinder and Kelsey emphasized the importance of the roles as Peer Supports as they are the ones engaging with the service users one-on-one.

“It is a peer-based service so all of the people on our side answering the phones do have work experience in either the healthcare field or the social services sector,” Kelsey explained. “That way, they really understand the workload or the terminology and how things operate so they can make that connection.”

“We want people to be empowered, but sometimes if you are in crisis mode or just have a bad day, you cannot always necessarily make the decision on your own to look up resources. We are here to help with that,” she added.

“The volunteer is on a shift from 10:00am to 2:00pm or a shift from 5:00pm to 9:00pm and during that shift service users will call or chat,” Harjinder explained. “Volunteers will have access to software that allows them to answer calls and chats so that they can support individuals working in healthcare or social services sector.”

“Often times, individuals just need a conversation with someone, so that they can tell someone what has been going on in their day or what is on their mind. Whereas, other individuals have some topics that have been bothering them for a while and can be related to workplace harassment or other events in the workplace that they cannot control or talk about to their colleagues,” Harjinder stated. “The Peer Supporters serves them in a way that––because Peers have been in similar situations or understand the workload or burden they are under––they can share and relate to what might have worked for them when our volunteers might have gone through something similar. We do offer resources to those who need them and have a reliable database, however with our platform we try to empower the service user so they can try and look for those resources themselves.”

To become a Peer Support volunteer, you can apply online on where you can visit the page for Care to Speak. You can click this subsection volunteering to find the application.

“The applications get forwarded to Kelsey or myself and then we screen them,” Harjinder explained. “We have a Zoom interview with potential applicants where we verify and ask a couple more questions regarding their applications to see if they are a good candidate and have experience. A key factor that we need from applicants is if they live in BC because the program is just provincially funded. From there, in terms of training dates, which will be negotiated in January 2022 as we have to ask all the applicants what their availability is and then we would set a date that works for everyone. I believe they would be about four to five hours long and there would be four to five online training sessions.”

“Often times the topic of suicide comes up and people get alarmed or do not know what to say,” Harjinder added, “so having that group setting and hearing what others have to say can give people confidence and reassurance in their capabilities to safety plan with the callers.”

In regards to the training, Harjinder and Kelsey continued to stress the support volunteers have when taking on the role. “If we see someone is struggling or is not sure or not comfortable taking a call, we can support them before they go on to take a full shift by themselves because it can be intimidating,” Harjinder explained.

“We are really big on support,” Kelsey affirmed. “It seems like a really daunting task that you will physically be doing alone but you always have staff and you always have your other volunteers that are there to support you. We really like to have open discussions about where we are mentally and physically. You are always supported and you are always cared for. You have to be in such an environment.”

“We kind of over-prepare our volunteers in terms of talking about suicide and mental health,” Harjinder disclosed. “They are not going to have a high risk suicide call every week or every shift. That is not what is happening right now. It could happen, but we over-prepare them in the sense that they are comfortable and have the resources there so if they are on a call and they do not know what to say, their training will help guide them through it.”

“That is the only disclaimer,” Harjinder added. “It can seem daunting but it is just us over-preparing them rather than under-preparing them and then they do not know what to do while they are on that type of call.”

“Overall they are mostly support calls, people who really need to talk out what they are feeling or what they are going through with somebody who is a stranger, somebody who is nice and confidential,” Kelsey affirms. “That way, you can have an honest talk.”

Harjinder and Kelsey also revealed how being a Peer Support can be beneficial to university students, emphasizing the diverse impact mental health can have on people and taking from their own experience as former UBCO students.

“With social services opening up, students wanting to do a Masters in social work or even doing an art degree and are considering social work, [the role] can give them a good realistic view of what they could be doing or would want to be doing,” Harjinder stated.

“I graduated in 2020 during the pandemic when it started and Kelsey graduated before me. She did a psychology degree and I did a biochem degree,” Harjinder explained. “I feel like healthcare is such a diverse topic and field. You do not have to be a nurse or doctor to fall into place, everyone works in different places.”

“I think it gives volunteers a good way to form meaningful connections while still being remote. It can give them the opportunity to grow as a person and talk about mental health,” she continued. “Everyone says it is stigmatized and not talked about. However, this opportunity gives students a good ground on being comfortable, having those conversations, and really helping someone who needs it. The job, after doing a shift, is just so rewarding. People thank you and bless you. It gives you a good feeling inside.”

As Harjinder pointed out, the role not only can help with their future career path, but can also leave the volunteers with a myriad of beneficial skills. “Some students do it for a reference letter or resume as it gives them those skills but at the same time, they are learning good life skills on how to talk to people who are in a crisis, identify when someone is in a crisis, have a safety plan on how to get them out of where they are at, and identify the smallest changes that people can make to brighten their day.”

If you are interested in volunteering or would like to learn more, you can access the website’s information here or go directly to the application page here.