Indigenous crisis line KUU-US sees rise in COVID-19 related calls

How a 24-hour, province-wide support line is providing mental health services for communities across B.C.

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2020 the KUU-US Crisis Line Society received an increase of 142 per cent in calls relating to loneliness and an increase of 198 per cent for calls about addictions.

Based in Port Alberni, KUU-US provides crisis line services to Indigenous Peoples throughout B.C. KUU-US means “people” in Tseshaht Language.

KUU-US also has a youth crisis line, with staff trained in child and youth support.

Liaison coordinator and supervisor of protocols Kateri Deutsch says there has been an increase in calls related to anxiety and isolation since the pandemic began. Deutsch’s numbers tracking the increase are comparing Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 2020 to the same time period last year.

“I’ve noticed, specifically, an increase with Elders being affected,” she says. “Just given the history, it’s bringing up memories from residential school. So those are triggers that can cause an increase in substance abuse. Sometimes a lot of Elders might be on their own.”

Due to social-distancing measures, the pandemic has limited the range of in-person services Elders can access.

“They’re really utilizing a lot of services for daily life,” explains Deutsch. “And now with the shutdown of a lot of those services, it can be pretty hard. People who are used to having that face-to-face counseling, especially Elders who are attending counseling. A face-to-face relationship is so much more than talking to someone on the phone. You know, it’s so important to [our] culture to be able to look at someone.”

Deutsch is from ɁEsdilagh First Nation, with ties to Soda Creek FN. She has lived and worked in Nuu-chah-nulth territories on Vancouver Island for 20 years.

She says the rise in calls has specifically been related to substance abuse, correlating with stress and anxiety. She says that distancing and lockdown measures “means substance use going on at home, causing more relationship issues.”

Mental health issues increase

According to the Crisis Services Canada website, “During times of such uncertainty and unpredictability, with a myriad of factors such as health concerns, economic stress and altered routines, increased stress is a normal, widespread reaction.”

Data from a recent Statistics Canada survey shows that COVID-19 is impacting how Indigenous Peoples perceive their mental health. Among the Indigenous participants surveyed, 38 per cent reported fair or poor mental health since the pandemic began, while 60 per cent described their mental health as having “worsened.”

How Indigenous people have found their mental health to be during COVID-19, as surveyed by Statistics Canada. Photo credit: Statistics Canada.

In order to help combat this, Indigenous Services Canada announced Aug. 25 in a press release that it will be providing $82.5 million to support Indigenous communities adapt and expand mental wellness services as COVID-19 continues.

“In almost all of the discussions that I have had with First Nations, Inuit and Métis representatives since the beginning of the pandemic, the importance of recognizing and supporting mental wellness as a core need of the COVID-19 response has been communicated regularly,” Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller stated in a press release.

“Community-driven, culturally appropriate and timely mental health supports are critical to promote the well-being for anyone struggling to cope with the added stress and anxiety the COVID-19 pandemic has created,” Miller stated.

KUU-US crisis line is one example of culturally relevant services that could benefit from this type of support.

“Our hope regarding the government’s announcement [is] to help Indigenous people struggling with the effects of COVID-19, and that these supports include cultural and traditional services to meet the needs of youth, families and Elders,” Deutsch says.

History of KUU-US

The KUU-US Crisis Line Society was formed in 1993 in response to a need for suicide prevention work in the community of Ahousaht, B.C. A team of frontline emergency responders, counsellors and members of the general public gathered to set up the crisis line. It is unique in that it focuses on Indigenous callers. Currently, crisis line staff are 70 per cent Indigenous, says Deutsch.

“We all have either come from an Indigenous background or have that training,” she says. “Ideally, all of our phone support staff are Indigenous. Coming from that background … it could be praying in a traditional way with someone when you’re talking to them on the phone.”

The society is a non-profit charity organization that also provides crisis services through education, prevention and intervention programs. It is accredited through the American Association of Suicidology.

Staff are paid and trained employees rather than volunteers. Deutsch says she believes this raises commitment. She says she and her co-workers share several common traits key to their work: empathy and understanding.

“We build relationships,” continues Deutsch, “Some people phone in, they might want to talk, but first they just want to know what we’re about. They just want to ask questions. And that’s fine as well. There’s no reason too small to phone … and a crisis might be different from one person to another.”

She says anonymity is important for many who call in, and in order to feel comfortable doing so. This is why staff will often refer callers to other services or local resources.

“It could be someone who’s never accessed services before,” says Deutsch, who notes that there is a “stigma attached.”

Impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous men and women across Canada, as surveyed by Statistics Canada. Photo credit: Statistics Canada.

In May 2016, KUU-US partnered with First Nations Health Authority to expand services to the entire province, beyond Nuu-chah-nulth territories.

Sharing cultural resources in the referral process is another unique feature of KUU-US. The society has an extensive referral database that Deutsch says is currently being updated. She says the staff has had conversations with every band across B.C. to find out what traditional resources they offer to their community members, as a cooperative approach is key to their process.

“I go into First Nations communities across British Columbia and set up crisis response protocols,” says Deutsch. “[I] also work with hospital staff across British Columbia to set up what we call referral pathways. Same as the crisis response protocols in the community, but at the hospital level. So that if an Indigenous person who is suicidal presents at the hospital for suicide attempt or ideation…they’re being linked to our 24-hour crisis line.”

They are able to coordinate connections for people living away from their home community. For example, KUU-US may refer a service or contact that shares a caller’s background in order to grant them more familiarity and comfort.

Kateri Deutsch, KUU-US Crisis Services liaison coordinator and supervisor of protocols. Photo Credit: Kateri Deutsch.

Deutsch says a significant strength of KUU-US is the range of services for suicide prevention. “Another thing that’s really strong for us is our different services that we offer because we’re trying to be very preventative in the area of suicides.”

“We have our safety monitoring program, where we actually make outgoing phone calls to people who are [at] risk,” says Deutsch. “Whether that’s been identified to us by someone who’s close to them, whether they phoned in themselves.”

The contact might also come through KUU-US’s pre-planned protocols with band office staff, a local health centre or referral pathways through local hospitals.

“There are many different ways to access safety monitoring,” says Deutsch. “And I really think the traditional and cultural path back to that is our strongest.”

You can reach KUUS-US at the numbers below, and find more information here, along with tips on how to take care of your mental and physical health as the pandemic continues here.

Adult/Elder Crisis Line: 250-723-4050
Child/Youth Crisis Line: 250-723-2040

Odette Auger is our health reporter. You can follow her work here, or reach her via email:


Will you support our award-winning, Indigenous-led journalism?

We do journalism differently. Our strength-based approach to storytelling has already made huge impacts on our readers and community members.


Will you help us raise $20,000 in our reciprocal fundraising campaign?

Help us raise $20,000 for our reciprocal fundraising campaign

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top