Sunday Morning in the Crisis Room

It’s 7:45AM on a mild December Sunday and I am determined to be on time for my day in the life shift in the Klinic Crisis Room.   I have a Tim Hortons coffee and a box of Timbits in tow, if there is one thing I have learned in my year plus at Klinic is that you bring food, and you find food, in the crisis room.  Often on a particularly long day when I feel my blood sugar dropping I find myself standing helplessly in the middle of the crisis room mulling over the various offerings that have been left there, usually in search of something with chocolate – and usually successful.

Early on I came to think of the crisis room as the heartbeat of Klinic. In operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, it is the place that many know they can talk to someone when there is nowhere else.  Often, when I find myself driving by at night I am drawn to look up at the lights of the crisis room, which I know are always on, even if low.  I think this is why the food, these offerings, are always present.  It is like a silent acknowledgement to the role that those who take their shifts in this place play in our organization, and more importantly, in our community.

Crisis Room Phot Dec 2015

Many people are not aware of this critical role that Klinic plays in Manitoba. Klinic is responsible for the vast majority of crisis and helplines located in our province, currently numbering at nine.  For a comprehensive list visit Klinic’s website. The lines are anchored by the core service of the Manitoba Suicide Hotline  which is our first priority in answering calls.  To date for 2015 the crisis lines have logged 42,645 calls, of which 721 were in December; these are updated daily and do not include our gambling hotline.

Today I arrive at shift change and catch up with the others as the night crew updates on the overnight.   There is 2 staff there from the overnight, and there are also 2 volunteers finishing up from a sexual assault call that required a hospital visit.  The crisis room in many ways is where a lot of Klinic comes together, for example the overlap with our sexual assault program response which often starts with a call to the sexual assault crisis line.  Our statistics for the Sexual Assualt Crisis Program indicate that we average one call requiring a hospital visit every day over the course of a year.

Today is a higher staffed day, there is one volunteer and one staff member working on the sexual assault line.  The volunteer is a student who only recently completed her training with us and therefore is completing her training shifts with a staff shadowing.  There is one staff member who is on the Critical Incident Reporting and Support Line (CIRSL), and was on call last night for this line as well. Operating the general crisis lines are three staff and volunteers including my host, Barb, as well as the volunteer shift supervisor, present for most shifts.  Depending on call volumes and history we may have a variety of staff and volunteers  at any given time.

The crisis room is ground zero for something I have talked about before, which is the complex human resource environment in an organization like Klinic.  Many of our staff have been, or still are, active volunteers; they may now work casual or have moved into a part time or full time shift here or in other parts of the organization. Often they are working in several functions in the organization giving each of them very unique perspectives.   The complexity of all this really hit me hard when I spent a few hours with a member of our administrative team (Donna) while she completed payroll for the crisis room- in some instances a single employee may have 10 plus entries or activities for a single day- each needing to be coded specifically.  Working with Donna helped me recognize all of the activities that need to happen behind the scenes to make a complex environment like this work.

By 8:00 a.m. almost everyone in the room is on the phone: the day starts busy and I am impressed with how smoothly staff and volunteers work together to respond to callers and transition through the shift change.  After training it is the expectation that all staff can take calls from almost any of the lines, however sexual assault, the human trafficking line, the seniors abuse support line, the problem gambling help line and CIRSL all require additional training.  By utilizing this approach we are able to leverage our resources to respond to this wide variety of possible issues- and as Barb points out really at the basis is a compassionate response that assesses risk and plans for safety when needed.   Barb also talks about one of the hard pieces of the job being hanging up from a particularly difficult call where perhaps you are very concerned about someone’s safety, and needing to put that aside and answer the next call.

In between calls I do get to chat with others in the room and get a sense of what brought them to us.  One volunteer talked about the fact that she waited two years just to be accepted into our volunteer training program and how happy she was to finally be able to get started.  As I have talked about before the volunteer workforce at Klinic is staggering. With well over 150 active volunteers, many who have waited years to start training with us, they are the critical backbone to our crisis program.

Talking to staff and volunteers about what they like about the work,  what drew them to it, and listening to the care and empathy that they put into it, is illuminating and humbling.   These folks show up here, at all hours of the day and night, and they do incredibly hard work.Though I know the successes and small victories can be exhilarating, I also know that there are times when they hang up unsure of the safety of that individual, and they must sit with that.  As one of the volunteers shares with me a story from when she first started that included a cry for help from a young father unable to cope; I am unable to offer any meaningful response, as there simply are no words.

Things that I learned on my shift in the crisis room:

  • The complexity of running a 24/7 call centre with multiple programs and staffing elements is enormous
  • Technology has come a long way in the years since we started operating the crisis lines, and though we are trying to keep up we still have a ways to go to truly capitalize on some of these changes, particularly in phone systems
  • Sound masking and distribution really matter in an environment where a lot of people are on the phone with people in crisis
  • When you only work a few shifts a week staying connected to the organization in a meaningful way can be challenging (also there is simply too much email)
  • Managing a call centre model across multiples sites (Winnipeg and Brandon) means we have to work really hard to be consistent and communicate
  • Time to debrief and destress is critical to the work and needs to be promoted along with self-care
  • We need to keep bringing food to the crisis room (they are particularly fond of chocolate and potato based items- though I am told they will also graciously accept vegetables with dips)