In my previous blog post, I touched on the importance of having an adequate support network around us. In this post, I elaborate on why I don’t think it’s realistic to expect professionals to be able to handle every aspect of mental health. Rather, taking collective responsibility by connecting and empathizing with one another will substantially alleviate existing issues.
Over the course of volunteering at Toronto Distress Centres (DC for short), I noticed a few things that stood out. Before going into them, it’s best to briefly describe how the services are organized. There are 3 locations in the GTA – Downtown, Scarborough, and North York. Usually, about 2 to 3 volunteers operate in each location at any given time, maintaining continuous shift coverage 24/7. Shifts last anywhere from 3 hours to 7 hours for the overnight shift. Overall, a community of a few hundred regular volunteers are completing at least one shift per week.
Despite the tireless efforts of volunteers, it was not uncommon for the lines to experience considerable wait times – sometimes upwards of half an hour! You can imagine that it isn’t ideal to put someone on hold that long when they’re in distress. Unfortunately, there are limits to what DC can provide for two main reasons. The first is that there is limited infrastructure to be able to accommodate and coordinate a certain number of volunteers at any given time. Expanding the offices requires additional funding. Where would that come from? As a nonprofit, DC relies almost exclusively on public donations, with a small fraction of funding coming from government programs.
The second reason that the scale of DC is constrained is that volunteering there is extremely demanding. Taking on the burden of empathy with caller after caller, shift after shift can be overwhelming. The range of difficulties experienced by people in all sorts of unique circumstances can wear down even the most well balanced volunteer with the best attitude going in. When empathy fatigue sets in, volunteers may feel incapable of helping any longer. In my time, I met a few steadfast and utterly selfless individuals who had been volunteering for over a decade, but I also met many who came and went over much shorter time spans. What happens if someone quits and a suitable replacement cannot be found and trained? As the demands of school, work, and career become ever more pervasive in our hyper-competitive economy, it may become even more challenging to maintain the current level of support DC offers, despite the best of intentions.
Last week I caught up with my old supervisor at DC. Shortly after I left DC to focus my efforts on making Passionfruit a reality, she also decided to take on a new challenge by starting a new psychotherapy practice. You can find out more about her work here. We reminisced about old times and the growing challenge of addressing mental health in modern society. We also agreed that there was a lot of potential to ease this burden if people understood each other better. But this generation, more than any before, is bombarded by enough media content to digest for a lifetime, so who’s budgeting time for making genuine connections with others?
As the portrait of an understaffed, under-budgeted, and overworked DC shows, relying solely on professionals to solve all of society’s problems is idealistic. We all go through unique challenges and try to untangle ourselves from an intricate web of life’s complexities. No one is immune. Sometimes, all we need is just someone to listen and understand where we’re coming from. Other times, that’s the first step among many to improving our quality of life. When we’re in a good place, we also have the strength and desire to reciprocate and understand others.
A back and forth dialogue of mutual understanding is essentially what Passionfruit facilitates. The goal is to get people to connect and relate, and what better way to accomplish that than through shared passions!
Look where you can’t see.