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Volunteers support Nanaimo community members in crisis

Crisis phone line receives calls from all ages
Heather Owen has been with the Vancouver Island Crisis Society since 2000. Owen became involved with the society after losing one of her best friends to suicide. (NICHOLAS PESCOD/The News Bulletin)

It was more than 15 years ago when Heather Owen found out one of her oldest friends had committed suicide.

“I was blindsided,” Owen said. “He had three lovely girls. He was about 40 and we had grown up together.”

Owen, who ended up raising one of her friend’s three daughters, reached out to volunteer with the Vancouver Island Crisis Society, a Nanaimo-based non-profit organization that has been operating a 24-hour crisis help phone line for decades.

“Not only was I grieving, but I didn’t know anything about suicide. I had never been touched by it before. I didn’t have any information. I didn’t have any information in school. I thought, I need to know how to support this girl and take care of this girl,” she said.

After spending years as a volunteer working the phone lines, leading suicide bereavement support group meetings and hosting workshops, Owen is now the society’s promotions and community relations coordinator.

“I started off as a volunteer. I had no training and became a certified crisis worker,” she said. “All of our staff are hired directly out of our volunteers. I started as a volunteer here and I still take calls today. I love being there for somebody.”

The Vancouver Island Crisis Society has been operating since the late 1960s. It has roughly 50 volunteer crisis line workers and trainees and nearly a dozen staff, who deal with calls relating to everything from suicide to helping someone sort out a breakup or job loss that has left them distraught.

“There is always that myth that crisis lines are just about suicide … which is not true. Crisis is about anything that causes you to be overwhelmed and not function on a normal basis,” Owen said.

Crisis line volunteers are given extensive training in crisis management at no cost, but are required to serve 200 hours in exchange. Volunteers do not provide advice or counsel those who call, but instead act as an outlet for someone to share their problems and feelings, according to Owen, who said just listening to someone can make all the difference.

“That little bit of caring, that little bit of validation can make somebody turn right around and say ‘I can get through this week,’” she said. “Once you’ve made that connection and you’re that good listener and they know you care they start telling you very honestly about it.”

According to Owen, less than 15 per cent of calls that her organization received last year were related to suicide.

The society receives phone calls from every age bracket.

“I’ve talked to eight- and nine-year-olds and 12- to 13-year-olds,” Owen said. “We get young people and we get people in old-age homes.”

Owen said becoming involved with the crisis society has not only made her feel good about helping other people, but it also changed her life for the better.

“It changed how I communicate with my family,” Owen said.

“I had a six year-old when I started, she’s now 21 and I used these principles when raising her. Now we have absolute open communication about anything.”