GREAT FALLS — The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of life in Montana. As infections spike, unemployment rises and the economy suffers - it has also taken a toll on mental health.
Voices Of Hope is a suicide and crisis hotline, based in Great Falls, that serves Central and Southeastern Montana. Director Jackie Gittins says the service has seen a large jump in calls to their 211 information line as people deal with the many challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we first saw the outbreak, quarantine and the limits on jobs, we had close to a 50% increase in calls that week,” Gittins said. “We went from an average call rate of 37 calls in a time period of four days to 92. And it kept increasing.”
In Cascade County, Voices Of Hope fielded 178 calls across the lifeline, local crisis line and 211 help line from February 13-22. For comparison, the first case of COVID-19 in Montana was made public on March 13. From March 13-22 the hotline received 348 calls, with 256 of those calls directly related to COVID-19.
“It was medical questions at first,” Gittins said. “People were searching for resources about how they were going to pay rent and everything else.”
After the initial wave of uncertainty, the volume of calls dropped but the nature of the calls changed as people adapted to the new normal. “It actually started to turn towards the mental health side of things ‘I'm tired of being in this position, there’s nothing to do, nothing’s getting better’,” Gittins said. “People had some serious mental health concerns. If people already deal with mental illness, we teach them to interact with people so they can feel what we call normal. Now we're isolating everybody again. Doesn't do them any good whatsoever.”
Gittins and staff had to adapt to the increased volume of calls at first. And they’ve answered the call - figuratively and literally. “We increased our staffing and in some cases that meant that even I had to take shifts on the line,” Gittins said. “We have found in the last quarter that 97-percent of our calls are answered.”
But most importantly Gittins wants Montanans to know that someone will always be there, and there are resources that can help. While the crisis line has seen a small increase, the vast majority of calls are coming into the 211 help line for resources, referrals and information.
“Use Montana211.org call us on 211 just don't sit back and let it fester,” she said. “There are programs to help you out there and you have to do some legwork. And we'll get through this as a community.”
In Cascade County alone, the 211 help line has received 1,671 calls since March 13th -- 1,483 of which have been directly COVID-19-related.