A nationwide suicide prevention hotline will become available to Canadians struggling with mental health challenges, with the launch of a new three-digit helpline across the country Thursday.
The 988 helpline, led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), provides a toll-free texting and calling service that will be available 24/7 to Canadians.
The service will become available at 9 a.m. ET on Thursday.
“It is such an important service at this time,” said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks in an interview with Global News.
“We know that every day across the country there are up to 12 individuals who are dying by suicide and it’s 12 too many,” she said.
“We know that since COVID, that mental health of so many of our young people and Canadians has been such a challenge and to be able to have a low-barrier access, three-digit number that is nationwide, that can meet people exactly where they are when they need it, is critical.”
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In Canada, approximately 12 people die by suicide every day, which amounts to 4,500 deaths per year, according to the CAMH.
The goal of the 988 helpline is to prevent suicide by making it simple as possible for people to get the help they need.
The 988 hotline will be staffed by trained responders with specialized training in suicide prevention.
More than 1,000 people across the country have been trained as responders and that training will be ongoing, CAMH said.
This training covers practices such as assessing suicide risk, aiding individuals with coping techniques and collaboratively creating safety plans.
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The 988 hotline mirrors a similar service that was launched in the United States 18 months ago.
Saks said the 988 helpline in the U.S. was a “great model to learn from” that helped Canada build out its own service in two years.
“We’ve had a lot of consultations with them on how to best build out the system here in Canada,” she said.
CAMH says it is partnering with groups like Hope for Wellness and Kids Help Phone to provide specialized support to First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities and to young people.
What happens when you call 988?
The hotline is available to anyone who is thinking about suicide, or who is worrying about someone they know, according to CAMH, adding that anyone who reaches out to 988 will be assessed for suicide risk.
People can call or text multiple times, depending on the support they need.
Once a person calls, a brief recorded message will let them know they are in the right place.
They will then be able to choose options to get the best support, including age, language preference (English or French) and whether they are Indigenous or not.
Following this, an important message about privacy and a link for additional information will be conveyed. It is up to the caller to provide how much or little personal information they share.
Security controls, including encryption and authentication, are in place to protect all personal information, CAMH said.
Once connected to a responder, the person will experience a safe space to talk, receiving empathy and assistance in developing strategies to establish safety during overwhelming moments.
Helpline an ‘added layer of support’
If a person doesn’t have cellular service, they won’t be able to call 988 using emergency services as is the case with 911, according to CAMH.
The centre emphasizes that, in the majority of calls and texts, emergency services will not be involved.
The cases when 911 will be contacted include: if a person is at immediate or imminent risk of seriously harming themselves, or if a person has taken steps to harm themselves or someone else.
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Jake Ernst, clinical director at Straight Up Health in Toronto, said this helpline is “really moving the needle” on what’s urgently needed right now by increasing access to mental health support and providing Canadians with an additional tool beyond therapy.
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“We are in a mental health crisis and in therapy we don’t use that term lightly,” Ernest said in an interview with Global News. “With rising rates of loneliness, declines in friendship, increase in separation and divorce, there is an increase in distress.”
While the new helpline may not completely reduce the risk of suicide, Ernst said it can provide an “added layer of support for everyone in the country.”
“I think that that is a great way of adding preventative tools like talking about our emotions, talking about where we’re at and having someone hear us and listen to us.”
Can children access the helpline?
In Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death among the youth and young adults, according to PHAC.
There is growing research and concern about the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, particularly among the younger population.
A Statistics Canada report from May showed that the prevalence of suicidal thoughts in 2021 was highest among young adults aged 18 to 24 years compared with any other age group.
Suicide attempts among Canadian youth also soared in the early years of the pandemic.
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The overall hospitalization rates for substance use among Canadian children and youth – aged 10 to 24 years – also remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, but in a positive sign saw a decline of 10 per cent over the past year, according to new data released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) Thursday.
The CIHI report also showed that 70 per cent of children and youth hospitalized for substance use also had a mental health diagnosis such as a mood, psychotic or anxiety disorder.
Children and young adults can also call into the 988 helpline and receive specialized support.
If a young person is not comfortable speaking with a parent or guardian, the 988 responder will assist them to figure out who else in their life they might feel safe confiding in, CAMH said.
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Ernst said adding the text-based option to the 988 helpline will particularly benefit young people, who are spending “unprecedented amounts of time” on their smartphones.
“Unfortunately, when we spend too much time on the internet and social media, it trains unhealthy mental, social and emotional habits,” he said. “And so I look at the presence of a text line and a phone line like this as one of those added resources that young people can use … when perhaps they’re stuck online or caught in a rabbit hole of an algorithm.”
— with files from Global News’ Katherine Ward.