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Years in the works, Canada's new 988 suicide crisis line is now available

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In a massive step towards prioritizing the mental health and well-being of Canadians, the government has officially launched a nationwide, three-digit suicide crisis helpline.

Years in the making, Canadians from coast-to-coast can now call or text 988 when in crisis, or when someone knows a person is in crisis and needs assistance.

They will be connected with a trained responder, with most calls or texts being answered by someone in the same region, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all free of charge.

The helpline became active at 9 a.m. ET.

"It's a line focused on suicide prevention," Dr. Allison Crawford, chief medical officer for 988 and a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), said.

"When someone calls or texts they will get somebody who's able to listen, to engage with your story, with your experience, to provide you support. And at the same time they do ask questions to make sure there are no safety issues."

Crawford is leading the team at CAMH, tasked with launching and operating the hotline based on a previously announced $156-million federal investment over three years.

"We know that crisis lines work and I think just knowing that it is so easily available, so easy to access with three digits, and that it's being supported not only by the government but also by community, that communities care about the people that are in their community, we are hoping that it saves lives," Crawford said.

In Canada, an estimated 4,500 people die by suicide every year and advocates say while that number has remained steady in the last few years, what's rising exponentially is simply the number of people in crisis.

It's expected 988 will receive between 600,000 and 700,000 calls in the first year.

"Especially with growing mental health needs I think it's more pressing, more important, and people don't know where to turn. So I think this is a service that will be that place to turn if someone is in distress, especially if they're having thoughts of suicide," Crawford said.

"We want to become the trusted place that people reach out in that moment if they're struggling with thought of suicide or if they're worried about someone else."

Speaking at a news conference Thursday announcing the hotline, Mental Health Minister Ya'ara Saks said, "Every person in Canada deserves access to crisis support services when and where they need it and we are providing that lifeline ... Each phone call in the 988 is not just answering the call of the person in crisis, but the world of families and communities around them who we are also supporting in that moment of need."

HOUSE APPROVES SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE

The new line replaces the 10-digit national number, Talk Suicide, which has been in place for several years.

The 988 crisis helpline will build on its success and expertise, along with those of local crisis helplines.

Both critics and advocates have agreed the 10-digit number posed an added challenge for being difficult to remember or find at a time of dire need.

The hotline has been in the works for years, with Conservative MP Todd Doherty putting forward a motion in December 2020 to establish a national suicide prevention hotline, which the House of Commons passed unanimously.

In August, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said it would adopt a new 988 number that Canadians can call or text — 24/7 and free of charge — for "immediate mental health crisis and suicide prevention intervention."

DOZENS OF ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED

It took 15 months for service providers to implement the technology and three-digit capabilities in every region.

The call line is serviced using national partners like Kids Help Phone, along with provincial, territorial and community based organizations already in existence to operate the line. Some centres have hired more staff and volunteers.

Once launched, 39 organizations across the country will be involved and tasked with creating teams of responders to handle calls.

"Our responders go through a significant amount of training that's all evidence-based in crisis intervention and suicide prevention," Emma Potter, senior director of service systems at Canadian Mental Health Association, Edmonton Region, said.

"To learn really how to be a supportive listener, to help guide people through what's going on for them, help them unpack and cope with the feelings they're experiencing, and then really move them to safety and look at what needs to help them stay safe, today, tomorrow and the day after that."

Potter is leading a team of responders that already supports people with mental health services and will now accept calls through 988.

Those tasked with creating the national line want to add more groups across the country.

Responders working locally not only understand the issues faced in a particular region, they have an awareness of accessible resources and can get a person in crisis connected with the right supports. As part of the federal injection, organizations were also given $21 million to bolster the capacity of distress centres as they prepare for an increase in demand.

"It can be really, really challenging for people to reach out and take that step to call a line when they're struggling, so we can see and hear in their voice – in the people who reach out to us – how much us being on the end of the line and listening impacts their life," Potter said.

"And the good thing is we often get to hear that from them as well, how grateful and how thankful they were that we were there at that time for them."

'LIFE-SAVING, LIFE-CHANGING'

The challenge, advocates say, is that people have struggled to find appropriate resources and people to speak to in a time of urgent need.

A three-digit line offers accessibility to people right across the country.

Al Raimundo helped in the development process. Working alongside CAMH as a person with lived experience, Raimundo got involved after attempting to access crisis services as both a teenager and an adult.

"The first time I tried to access crisis services I was 13 years old," Raimundo said.

"I was struggling with my mental health, with bullying at school. I was putting different things into Google like, 'I want to die, I don't want to live anymore,' and I wasn't getting the crisis lines back that I should have because I wasn't putting the right words into the search engine to find the service."

Raimundo adds, "I couldn't find what I should be accessing and that led me to not accessing anything and attempt suicide, which landed me in the hospital."

Raimundo's second time trying to access crisis services was in their early 30s. They had been diagnosed with cancer and became overwhelmed with a feeling of dread and anxiety. Even as an adult Raimundo couldn't research the right places and nothing seemed to fit, which nearly led to another suicide attempt.

Raimundo says a suicidal feeling leads to swirling thoughts, which prevents someone from thinking clearly enough to locate resources or help.

"It's also telling me I'm not worthy of reaching out for help, that I'm not worthy of reaching out for support," Raimundo said, adding that at a time of crisis, people don't have any excess energy.

"You're spending so much of your energy just trying to fight to be alive. Trying to navigate a crisis system on top of that is almost an impossible feat."

The development of 988 is something Raimundo is excited about, knowing that it will help people at a time of need.

"To have something as easy to remember as 988, to have a call option and have a text option, and to know that when I call that number they may not be able to solve my problem, they may not be able to take it all away, but they'll walk alongside me in my crisis, they'll remind me that I'm worth fighting (for)," Raimundo said.

"That I'm worth waking up tomorrow and seeing another day and that what we're going through is hard and it's a struggle, but it's worth it."

The added benefit of a national, three-digit line is the continuity across the country.

"So as I move or travel, if I am experiencing crisis in a new place, 988 is still the right place, it's still the right number, and somebody caring and awesome is going to be on the other side of that line."

Built on government funding, Raimundo feels it's important for all Canadians to understand why this service will be so critical for so many.

"To have a lifeline for suicide prevention, to have somebody on the other side that knows what they're going through, that knows what it feels like, that has heard this before, is going to be life-saving, life-changing," Raimundo said.

"It's going to be such an important part of the tool kit of not only folks struggling with their mental health, but teachers and community members who often see people struggling and catch it before that person themselves realizes that something is wrong."

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