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March 2008     

In This Issue

  •  Volunteer Recognition Award Honours Founder of Distress Line Movement
  • Anti-Oppressive Practice (AOP): A Possible Framework for Distress Line Work
  • CASP Turns a New Page 'Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention'















Nominees and recipients will be profiled in a special edition of Enews and views in April 2008.











Volunteer Recognition Award Honours Founder of Distress Line Movement

In April 2008, Distress Centres Ontario will recognize three distress line volunteers with the Spirit of Volunteerism Award given in memory of Rev. Chad Varah. This is the inaugural year for this annual award. Distress line volunteers across Ontario nominated for the award have shown a commitment to listening with empathy and to the ideals of the distress line movement as they have supported Ontarians in distress.

About Reverend Chad Varah

Rev. Chad Varah was born in Lincolnshire, England November 12, 1911 and died November 8, 2007. Rev. Varah started the Samaritans in 1953 with a newspaper advertisement pleading for volunteers to come to his historic London, England church and use "active listening therapy" to help the hundreds of people who contemplated suicide every day.

The Distress Line movement in Ontario is based on the early principles of the Samaritans. Rev. Varah thought of his Samaritans as "firespotters" who "keep watch for the conflagrations that break out in human lives." Varah was widely recognized as having pioneered the crisis line for those threatening suicide. He also helped change attitudes toward suicide and fostered a non-judgemental approach toward people in need.

Varah first began to understand the problem of suicide in 1935 when he officiated at the funeral of a fourteen-year-old girl who committed suicide because she thought she had a sexually transmitted disease. In reality she was menstruating. At that time he vowed to help people who were contemplating suicide and had nowhere to turn.

In an article by Rev. Varah describing why he started Samaritans, he relates how he discovered the power of volunteers to help people in need:

It soon became evident that they were doing the clients more good than I was. Everybody needed befriending (as we called it then): only a minority needed my counselling, or referral to a psychiatrist. By 2nd February 1954, I called these amateurs together and said, "Over to you Samaritans. Never again shall I pick up the emergency phone, nor be the one to say ‘Come in and have a coffee', when a client taps at the door. I shall select you and supervise you and discipline you and sack you if necessary, and see the clients who need something more than your befriending, and I shall make the decisions you are not competent to make. But you are the life-savers, and one day everyone will recognise what suicidal people need."

And in that spirit, Distress Centres Ontario will recognize volunteers who are "life-savers" for people in crisis.

Anti-Oppressive Practice (AOP): A Possible Framework for Distress Line Work

Brent Robinson is a third year social work student at Ryerson University's School of Social Work who has been doing a field placement at Distress Centre Durham since September 2007. One of his research projects has been to examine different social work practice theories in the light of the work carried out by Distress Centre Durham.  Ryerson has a primary research focus on one of these theories: anti-oppressive practice (AOP).  Robinson was particularly interested in how AOP might contribute to a practice model or framework for the distress centre movement in Ontario. 

"One of the things that was evident when I started here and attended the DCO conference in the fall was that there were decades of experience and talent in crisis intervention [among staff and volunteers].  People are highly trained and have developed skill sets around crisis intervention, but there is less clarity about a theoretical basis for why we do what we do and how we do it," says Robinson.  He says having a model for distress centre practice - grounded in theory - might make it easier to communicate distress centre services to our funders, the general public and to our clients.

Anti-Oppressive Practice (AOP) is an emerging model for human services work that seems to have good application for distress centres. "Oppressions" are societal labels and barriers like sexism, ageism, heterosexism, racism, disable-ism and classism that can intersect and further complicate the lives of people in crisis.

"AOP gives you a perspective or another way of listening to a client," says Robinson. One of the key principles of the distress line movement is active listening. Robinson states that if you are going to be an active listener you need to understand what people are going through. "AOP gives you the basis for a better understanding of what a caller is facing in their lives. Sometimes new volunteers rush to a solution when what they need to do is listen to the callers' stories," he says.

There are five key practice principles associated with AOP: 1.critical reflection 2. critical assessment of callers' experiences of oppression 3. empowering callers 4. working in partnership with callers and 5. minimal intervention.

1. Critical Reflection

Volunteers are encouraged to critically reflect on their own thoughts, feelings, privileges and oppressions through keeping a journal or debriefing with a supervisor or colleague. Critical reflection helps volunteers maintain their own emotional health. By understanding themselves, volunteers can listen more actively to callers.

2. Critical Assessment of Caller's Experience of Oppression

Many callers have faced long-term societal/structural oppressions such as sexism, homophobia, racism, or discrimination because of a physical or mental disability. Understanding the nature of a caller's difficulties helps volunteers provide empathy to callers.

3. Empowering Callers

Empowerment is a key principle in AOP. Volunteers at Distress Centre Durham are trained not to "load our callers up with solutions." Instead, they work toward solutions with a caller. As they actively listen to their caller's narrative they build trust and empower a caller to determine and "own" solutions to their problems. The only exception is when callers are at risk of harming themselves or others, and then volunteers are more directive with their intervention.

4. Working in Partnership with Callers

Volunteers look for a caller's strengths by asking how the person in crisis handled similar situations in the past -pointing out that he or she survived in the past. A volunteer is not telling the person what they should do but helping the person identify possible actions they could take.  Volunteers view the caller as an expert in their own situation.  Callers' narratives are privileged and volunteers are there to help them tell their stories - perhaps for the first time in their lives.

5. Minimal Intervention

Applying AOP, volunteers aim to intervene in the least intrusive and least oppressive ways possible. Callers should feel respected and empowered.

One area that Robinson feels needs more research when it comes to AOP is what to do when a caller is at risk of harming him or herself or someone else. Current distress centre practice is to intervene in high-risk situations in a highly intrusive way (e.g. calling emergency services or the police). "There needs to be more research qualifying what ‘minimal intervention' means (or should mean) in these contexts," says Robinson.

AOP is not a perfect fit but it does have many valuable applications for distress line work.

This article was compiled with information from a research paper entitled "Anti-Oppressive Practice and the Distress Centre Movement" by Brent Robinson for Distress Centre Durham.

CASP Turns a New Page

For the past 23 years, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) has been providing information and resources to communities in the hope of saving lives across the country. Though not a direct service provider, CASP facilitates information sharing, advocacy and research related to suicide prevention.

This year CASP will continue to work towards its dream of improving quality of life with the help of a new national office, a new plan, and a new focus.


For the past number of years CASP has found shelter beneath the wings of Edmonton's Support Network, with Joan Wright serving as CASP executive director. When Wright recently announced her decision to step down, CASP began looking for a new place to call ‘home.'

It soon became clear that Klinic Community Health Centre of Winnipeg, MB should be that home, with Klinic's Tim Wall taking over as Executive Director. "We'll continue to do what we've always done, but with a different set of resources and people to help make some of the growth we've been looking for," says CASP Vice President and Research Committee Chair Dr. Marnin J. Heisel.


Part of this growth includes revising the old CASP Blueprint for a Canadian National Suicide Prevention Strategy-an initiative which began a couple of years ago.

After releasing the blueprint in 2004 at CASP's annual conference, the committee began looking at ways to develop a Business and Implementation Plan. "The CASP board has finally undertaken a revision of the blueprint, and we hope to continue to do that over the next few months," says Heisel.

The board hopes to reveal the changes at CASP's upcoming annual conference, taking place in Quebec from October 26-29th.

The winners of this year's CASP awards will also be announced in Quebec. Nominations for the CASP Research Award, the Student Research Award, the Freddi Ford Award, the CASP Media Award and the CASP Service Award can be made online at


While not directly under the auspices of CASP, Heisel mentions a new emphasis which he and a number of other CASP members are focusing on.

"We're on the cusp of a period in time in which we will have an unprecedented number of older adults in our society," says Heisel. Over the next two decades, between twenty and twenty-five per cent of Canada's population will turn sixty-five years or older. That means one in four persons will be a senior citizen. "We just don't have enough services to care for our seniors," remarks Heisel.

In light of this, Heisel is partnering with the Canadian Coalition for Seniors Mental Health (CCSMH) to develop training material which will help prevent suicide among senior citizens. The material will include brochures and interactive DVDS which will focus on risk factors, warning signs, key messages, how to assess risk and ultimately, how to prevent suicide among older adults.

"One of the difficulties in Canada is that suicide surveillance isn't as accessible as in other countries," says Heisel. "We're a couple of years behind and don't have adequate ways of telling who in particular is at risk. It's a real problem."

Nevertheless, CASP is doing what it can to improve quality of life in Canada, and over the next 40 years this will mean a focus on preventing suicide among senior citizens as well as other at-risk populations.

Next Issue 

ACTION PRIORITIES from the Visioning Day



SPIRIT OF VOLUNTEERISM read about the nominees and recipients













































































For Further Reading

1. Baines, D. (2007). Anti-oppressive social work practice: fighting for space, fighting for change.  In D. Baines (Ed.) Doing Anti-Oppressive Practice: Building Transformative Politicized Social Work (pp.1-30). 

2. Barnoff, L. and Moffat, K. (2007). Contradictory Tensions in Anti-OppressionPractice in Feminist Social Services. Journal of Women and SocialWork, 22(1), 56-70. 

3. Healy, K. (2005a). Social Work Theories in Context: Creating Frameworks forPractice. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. 


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