Lend me an ear

The Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region celebrated 50 years of helping people in 2019


In 2015, Jennifer B. was wrestling with postpartum depression after the birth of her second child.

At the time, the Ottawa resident, who asked that her last name not be used, said that her “blues were so severe that it strained my marriage.” The stay-at-home mom felt isolated. “But I wanted to be healthy for my kids, so I knew I needed to be proactive.”

Jennifer called the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region after coming across a pamphlet for the service. She spoke with a volunteer and got a list of resources. Although she never needed to phone them again, the call was enough to get her through a particularly bad day.

Celebrating 50 years in Ottawa, Ottawa’s 24/7 crisis and support line offers free, confidential, unbiased and non-judgmental support for anyone who is experiencing distress or crisis. 

“We hear from many mothers who are experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety [and] couples who are going through perinatal depression together or separately,” says Leslie Scott, manager of media, marketing and communications for the organization. “We also hear from many who are having issues with their child being bullied, substance use, anxiety, depression and some are calling for resources like support groups or just to talk about the trials of being a parent in this day and age. We get many of the similar calls from youth including – but not limited to – bullying, social media issues, anxiety, depression, abuse, teen pregnancy, sexuality and stress.”

Leslie Scott.

Currently the third-largest distress centre in Canada (behind Toronto and Calgary), the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region has answered more than 1.2 million calls since its inception.

“Back in 1969, mental health wasn’t spoken about as freely as it is today,” says Scott. “It was labelled as extreme sadness, ‘crazy,’ baby blues, etc. People spoke with their primary healthcare physicians, but there was nowhere for people to call to just talk about what was going on in their lives.”


The centre partners with many different geographical areas, so the region it covers – Ottawa, MRC La Vallee-de-la-Gatineau, MRC Les Collines-de-l’Outaouaid, MRC Papineau, MRC Pontiac, Region of Nunavik, Nunavut Territory, all Regions of the Northwest Territories, Awkesasne Territory, County of Renfrew, United Counties of Prescott and Russell, United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry and the Counties of Grey and Bruce – is large, says Scott. Sixty percent of the callers are female, and the main age group 30 to 45.

Callers phone for all sorts of reasons. “Some call to vent about a bad day before they get home to their family,” says Scott. “Some will call us because they’re grieving the loss of a loved one or a pet. Others will call us when they are dealing with stress with exams or work. We answer calls from people who are in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack. We answer calls from people who are in abusive relationships, or are dealing with an addiction. We get calls from people who have received a devastating medical diagnosis or a mental illness diagnosis. Some people call us because they are isolated and lonely.”

Volunteers also get calls from people who are calling on behalf of someone they are concerned about in their lives. Others are wanting to get help finding a local community resource such as the closest food bank, or a shelter, and still others call because they are contemplating suicide, or have started their attempt. 


“We do answer calls that are mental health emergencies,” says Scott – “someone has overdosed on the phone before they call us or while on the phone with us, they are attempting suicide, or someone is in danger. We will always ask if they are able to get themselves to a hospital or call 911. If they cannot, we can ask for their consent to do that for them.”


Volunteers are trained to ask for the caller’s full name and phone number, as well as an address, if the caller will give it. That way, if the volunteer loses contact and someone’s life is in immediate risk, they have procedures in place to get emergency services to them.


The centre’s database has an incredible 4,000 resources, so it can provide callers with options that may be beneficial to them.

The last half century has seen many changes, Scott says. Call volume has seen a “dramatic” increase since 2012. “Our world is getting better at ending the stigma of mental health,” she says. In any case, the need for the centre isn’t going anywhere. Scott even suggests that there may be additional services offered in time. “Whatever the case may be, we’ll be ready.”





Fact boxes

By the numbers

50: years in the community

200: volunteers from the community

54,630: calls answered in 2018

24/7: when phone lines are answered


How you can help

Become a volunteer: Volunteer responders come from all walks of life and trained to listen, talk through concerns and provide appropriate community resources. “If we didn’t have volunteers, we wouldn’t have a service,” says Scott. Those interested can learn more about what volunteering entails at dcottawa.on.ca. Following a successful interview process, reference and police check, volunteers complete a 60-hour in-house training program (which includes topics like empathic assertiveness, limits and boundaries, substance use, mental illnesses, and more, as well as a two-day world-renowned applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST) workshop). There is a time commitment of 200 hours in the first year.

Make a donation: A not-for-profit charitable organization, the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region relies in part on funding from partners and donations from individuals and businesses, as well its own fundraisers including The Chocolate Affair Gala, Mindful Ink and our 100x$100 Challenge. “Donations go such a long way for us – to help with training, general operating fund, services, technology upgrades, and whatever else comes up,” Scott says. “We welcome donations of any size – small or big – and all donations are provided with a charitable tax receipt.”