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Answering the call: creating the Yukon's first distress line

Answering the call: creating the Yukon's first distress line

[photo of Hailey Hechtman, Artsci’13]
Photo courtesy Hailey Hechtman

Hailey Hechtman, Artsci’13, makes the Yukon her home.

After moving to the Yukon, Hailey Hechtman (Artsci’13) hoped to work for the territory’s telephone distress line. With years of relevant experience to her name, working at the phone line seemed like a natural fit, so she readied her résumé and started reaching out. Ms. Hechtman quickly ran into a problem — an aid line didn’t exist.

Undeterred, she set about creating one.

Ms. Hechtman became impressed with the unique benefits of aid lines while a psychology student at Queen’s. She volunteered at Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) and saw that because distress lines are easy to access and callers are anonymous, people reach out who otherwise wouldn’t seek help.

“I was passionate about the work and it was really rewarding to hear from regular callers who were accessing the service for support, talking about high-risk situations that we were able to de-escalate,” she says. “Most of TALK’s calls were support calls: people feeling isolated, lonely, frustrated about their relationships and finances. We were getting people support now so they weren’t in crisis later.”

After serving for two years as TALK’s executive director, Ms. Hechtman worked at Distress Centres Ontario, the association that oversees the province’s 15 call centres. Shortly thereafter, she moved to the Yukon with her partner.

Before starting up an aid line in Whitehorse, Ms. Hechtman wanted to make sure the concept would work as well in her new home as it did in Kingston. She teamed up with the Second Opinion Society, a local counselling and support organization, to reach out to the community.

“I didn’t want to just decide this was what they needed, so I spoke to a number of agencies that do counselling work with first nations groups, youth groups and others,” says Ms. Hechtman. “As it turned out, everyone was very in favour of something like this.”

Because of its unique geographic make-up, the Yukon is especially suited to an aid line. The people who aren’t in Whitehorse are spread across small, far-flung communities, and often only have access to mental health services for a few days each month. It makes receiving regular care and treatment a challenge.

“There are a lot of dual relationships up here,” says Ms. Hechtman. “Your neighbour is your nurse, your friend is an RCMP officer, so it’s hard to find a safe, confidential space where someone can open up about issues like self-harm or suicide. If you’re five hours away from the next town, it’s hard to find anonymous support at 2 am.”

There are a lot of dual relationships up here. Your neighbour is your nurse, your friend is an RCMP officer, so it’s hard to find a safe, confidential space where someone can open up about issues like self-harm or suicide.

Finding financial support for the phone line eventually led Ms. Hechtman to Northwestel and the Bell Let’s Talk Community Fund, who donated to help get the service started. This funding helped earn them support from the Yukon government, which awarded them six months of financing to launch a pilot version of the service. 

On November 24, the Yukon Distress and Support Line launched with a full team of volunteers trained in active listening, mental health care, addictions, crises and suicide de-escalation.  They now regularly receive calls, and Ms. Hechtman says they’ve been able to help people during their darkest times.

“We’ve had about 15 people call in, thinking about committing suicide, and we’ve been able to de-escalate all of them.”

With the strong community response to the phone line, it officially became a permanent service on April 1 and moved to its new home at Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services. Since then, the line’s team of volunteers has continued to grow. 

With all the growth that has happened over the past months, and despite the setbacks she faced, Ms. Hechtman is optimistic. She felt the need for a service and worked to make it happen.

“We often worry that we can’t do something new, innovative or helpful, but you need to focus your energy and try to create something,” she says. “It’s important not to give up on something like that. If you persevere, things usually work out for the best.”

[photo of Queen's staff, faculty and students with a sign "Focus on mental health"]