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Volunteering with the Distress Line

Volunteering as a Distress Line Listener can be a life-changing experience. We’ll get you started with 90 hours of comprehensive training in crisis management, suicide prevention, family violence intervention, and much more. You’ll develop communication skills that will improve how you relate to the people in your life and you’ll be a part of an amazing team of compassionate people. Completing your volunteer contract as a Distress Line Listener is a great way to enhance your resume and earn a great reference letter. If you work, or are thinking about working, in a helping field (social work, counselling, nursing, etc.), becoming a Distress Line Listener give you lots of experience and help to grow your skills. Without highly-skilled, caring volunteers, the Distress Line would cease to exist and more than 1,300 calls for help would go unanswered each month.

Applications for the Distress Line are currently closed. Our next training class will be accepting applications for the January 2025 class. Applications for this class will open in September 2024.


When applications open, if you are interested in volunteering as a Distress Line Listener, please click here to complete to the Distress Line Application Form.

Please check your “spam” or “junk” folders if you do not see a response from us in your inbox.

The application process for becoming a Distress Line Listener is highly competitive. All applications undergo a multi-step screening process that is conducted primarily by email and other online methods. Please provide us with as much relevant information as possible in your application and in the subsequent stages of screening so we can learn as much as possible about your suitability for this position. Applications that have missing or minimal information are considered incomplete and therefore not competitive, and will not proceed to the next stages of screening.

Please note that ALL questions must be answered in the application, and we are unable to proceed with applications that are not filled out entirely. Please closely review your application before submitting to ensure it is completed. Only applications that are completed in entirety will be considered.

You are welcome to follow up on the status of your application by sending a message to: [email protected]


What is the role of volunteers on the Distress Line?

Volunteers are key people in the operation of the lines. The volunteer is the first, and often the only, contact a caller has when seeking support, information, understanding, or a listening ear. Volunteers do not judge, chat with, advise, preach to, or label callers to the lines.

Who volunteers on the Distress Line?

Anyone can make a difference. Our volunteers are of all ages (excluding minors) and backgrounds. Our volunteers are students, homemakers, police officers, grandparents, comedians, teachers, nurses … the list goes on. Anyone can help … individuals who care and want to be “here to listen when life hurts”.

What qualities are needed in volunteers?

The qualities which make good telephone volunteers are maturity, warmth, stability, objectivity, caring and common sense. Volunteers must be able to empathize with people in distress in a calm and empowering manner. Volunteers also need to be comfortable with using new technology, as well as multi-tasking.

You don’t need any special schooling or diplomas or degrees — we’ll train you! If you are patient, compassionate, reliable, objective, and able to listen without judgment, we can offer you an amazing experience.

The first rule of crisis intervention is that the person who is doing the helping cannot be in crisis themselves. Therefore, we may require prospective volunteers who have experienced a major life event or loss within the past 12 months to wait at least one year from the date of the event before beginning training.

What training do I receive?

All volunteers receive just over 70 hours of intensive basic training in communication skills, knowledge of community resources, suicide awareness and prevention, crisis intervention, bereavement, and special calls. Training will give you the confidence and knowledge to be able to comfortably discuss these issues.

Over 52 hours of classroom style training will be provided, and an additional 20 hours of training will be on the job training referred to as Monitoring Shifts. During these shifts you will take calls in the contact center with the support of a trained Monitor who will coach and guide you as needed. Monitoring Shifts begin about half-way through the classroom portion of training. These shifts are your opportunity to practice using your skills and knowledge and to learn by doing, so you’ll need to be comfortable with the idea of jumping in to take calls by your second Monitoring Shift.

Following your first 20 hours of Monitoring Shifts, you will work an additional 20 hours in the contact center with your Monitor. These hours will count towards your first contract as a volunteer and will begin to shift away from coaching and support, towards evaluating your knowledge, skills, and overall fit for the role. At the conclusion of 40 hours of Monitoring Shifts, volunteers will either successfully pass training or will be reconnected with the Volunteer Resource Coordinator to explore further options available to you.

We are currently conducting our lecture training with a Hybrid model, meaning the weekday evening session is in person, while the Saturday classes take place over Zoom. There will be both independent, self-paced, on-line learning modules for you to complete as well as live meetings for you to attend. In order to pass training, you must complete all on-line modules and you must attend all live meetings as scheduled. You do not require previous experience with on-line learning in order to participate, but you do need to feel comfortable working on-line, independently, and you also need to be able to keep pace between the on-line learning modules and live meetings according to the training outline provided. A draft copy of the training outline is included along with the training dates. We suggest that you set aside between 4-6 hours each week to complete the on-line modules.

Volunteers who have worked a minimum of four (4) months on the Distress Line will receive an additional training which qualifies them to answer Talk Suicide calls.

What Happens if I don’t Pass or Finish Training?

Not all volunteers who start our training program successfully finish training and graduate to working independently on the Distress Line. This happens for a variety of reasons:

We will work with you to support you in successfully completing the program, but if you don’t pass or if you can’t finish training for any reason, our door remains open to you. We will be happy to work with you to find a different time, or a different opportunity that better suits your needs.

The Distress Line program has more interest than we have capacity to train new volunteers, therefore screening for this role will be aimed at choosing only those applicants who we feel are most likely to pass training, and to complete the first contract. We appreciate the commitment of time and energy our volunteers make to participate in training, and we want to ensure it’s the best fit for you, and for the program.

Is anyone ever excused from the training program because of previous experience?

No. All volunteers must take the training program regardless of previous experience. Even professionals and volunteers from other crisis centres must take the training if they wish to work on the Distress Line.

What if I can’t make all of the training dates?

Anyone unable to make all of the training dates for a specific class will be asked to wait for the next training session; there are four sessions every year (January, March, June, and September). This is necessary because of the structure of the training – each class builds on the previous one and missing something makes it impossible to catch up.

How are shifts scheduled?

Shifts are self-scheduled using a web-based program. That means you sign up for shifts when you are available. Shift scheduling is the responsibility of the volunteers, who sign up as far in advance as possible. There is flexibility; however, volunteers changing a shift are responsible for finding their own replacement.

Do volunteers work alone?

At all times, there is a staff member present on site and supervisors on call for support and guidance, 24 hours a day.

What is the time commitment a volunteer should expect to offer the lines?

CMHA-ER expects a commitment of at least 200hrs in the first year.  This works out to 16 hours a month.  Volunteers self-schedule for all their shifts, giving our volunteers flexibility to volunteer when they can.

Where are the lines located?

The lines are at an undisclosed location near the downtown core. The exact address is known only to volunteers and staff of CMHA-ER in order to protect the safety and anonymity of the volunteers. The building is accessible by public transportation as well as being wheelchair accessible.

What are the requirements for volunteers?

Volunteer listeners must be at least 18 years of age. Fluency in both written and spoken English is required. Volunteers must be able to engage in self-directed online learning in order to successfully complete training, and must be comfortable working with basic technology such as computers and internet.

Is there a cost to volunteer on the distress line?

Yes, CMHA requires a fee of 80$ to train for the distress line. 25$ is a refundable key card deposit to gain secure access to the contact centre and is returned to you on the return of the key card. The remaining 55$ goes towards training costs and materials.

What Distress Line volunteers themselves have to say…

What callers have to say…

What’s in it for me again?

Volunteers who complete their first contract are eligible to receive a letter of reference or recommendation from their program supervisor. This letter would include a description of your role and training, the hours given to the service, and other pertinent notes about your performance as a volunteer.

Upon successful conclusion of the training program, volunteers may also receive verification of their involvement as a Distress Line volunteer.

Further, our volunteers experience the rewards of knowing they make a real difference to the people who call. On top of that, you’ll learn skills that can improve your personal and professional life and that will last long past any time you spend with us. This volunteer experience is highly-respected and an asset on any resume. As a Distress Line volunteer you will work with a diverse range of clients and situations. You’ll make connections, receive supportive feedback, work as a member of a dedicated team, and increase your knowledge of community resources. Volunteers are recognized in both formal and informal ways that are most meaningful to them.

The challenge we provide also keeps our volunteers coming back for more. There is much opportunity for personal growth. In terms of practical, career-related experience for those pursuing the helping professions, this volunteer opportunity can’t be beat.

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