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Calling the Alcohol and Drug Helpline Can Provide Impetus for Change

Hazel Smith

Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2 (9), p. 34-35

The telephone at BC’s Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service rings often. More than 90 people each day call the 24-hour helpline looking for assistance.

The toll-free service is funded by the Ministry of Health and operated by Information Services Vancouver (ISV), a non-profit agency based in Vancouver.

ISV is an accredited provider of information and referral services, with certified staff who provide confidential assistance in the form of emotional support, practical information and referrals to a wide variety of resources. Service is available in 130 different languages, including 17 Aboriginal languages, courtesy of the multicultural staff and a professional interpretation service. Last year, enquiries exceeded 30,000

But what many callers appreciate most about the service is that they can remain anonymous.

“People with an addiction often feel a lot of shame,” explains an ISV staffer, who is also a registered clinical counsellor. “They are really scared to talk to anyone so when they’ve finally plucked up the courage to call and we ask them what city they’re calling from, they’re delighted because they realize we don’t have call display, and immediately relax.”

The ‘relaxation’ part of the helping equation is important. Once a person understands that they can’t be identified—something that is especially important to people living in small communities—they are much more inclined to talk openly. This, in turn, helps propel them on to the next stage—that of getting help.

“It’s only by being open with us that we can provide them with the most appropriate help,” the staffer adds.

For alcoholics, the shame can be particularly acute, she says, because alcohol is a legal substance and an integral part of our culture. “People feel the should be able to handle a drink with dinner or a drink with friends after work.”

ISV established the province-wide Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service in 1989 at the request of the provincial government. It is one of two addiction-based services operated by the agency, and one of four specialized helplines provided by ISV. The other services, which also offer 24-hour assistance and are government funded, are the Problem Gambling Help Line, VictimLINK (for victims of family and sexual violence and all other crimes) and the Youth Against Violence Line.

Alcohol has been the drug of choice for many callers over the years and is still the substance most often cited as causing problems. Approximately one third of calls involve the use or overuse of alcohol. Other substances mentioned by callers include cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, ecstasy, cannabis, LSD, prescription drugs and tobacco.

In the past, people often reached middle age before years of alcohol abuse caught up with them, but that pattern is changing. The growing popularity of multidrug use among young people has meant that people are experiencing severe problems with addiction at a much younger age.

“We are getting more and more calls from young people concerning their multi-drug use. They’re combining alcohol with cocaine—one’s an ‘upper,’ the other a ‘downer’—or alcohol with amphetamines, which is a popular choice among young women because amphetamines suppress the appetite.

Calls are often complex, with people describing scenarios involving one or more ‘cross-over’ issues. So a young man with an addiction to alcohol might also be using cocaine and also be facing criminal charges. Or an elderly woman may be drinking excessive amounts of alcohol to ease the emotional pain of abuse.

Because ISV’s staff is trained in all aspects of addiction, as well as issues related to the agency’s other specialized services, they are well equipped to respond to callers with multiple problems.

Listening carefully to what a caller is saying—and what they’re not saying—and knowing the right questions to ask enables a staff person to assess the caller’s situation before exploring options with them—talking about the advantages, or otherwise, of choosing one option over another. It’s a process that helps the caller focus on his or her priorities and determine a course of action.

And with access to ISV’s large and comprehensive database of community organizations, government agencies and social services available around the province, staff can refer the person to those resources best able to meet a caller’s particular needs.

Referrals are many and varied, and often more than one is given. Referrals include (but are not limited to) residential or non-residential detoxification services, outpatient services, residential treatment facilities, support groups, counselling and education and prevention resources.

The majority of people who contact the Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service are looking for help for themselves. About one quarter of enquires come from people wanting to help someone else (callers may be parents, friends or colleagues), and a small number come from staff at other agencies seeking assistance for clients.

“Whoever calls us, we’re here to help,” the ISV staffer adds. “People are relieved to finally talk to someone and find that there is hope for change. It helps provide the impetus for them to take the necessary steps to get their lives back on track.

 
About the Author

Hazel is Coordinator of Communications and Marketing at Information Services Vancouver

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