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New 988 suicide prevention hotline to be in place by November 2023: CRTC

In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cellphone in New Orleans. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jenny Kane In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cellphone in New Orleans. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jenny Kane
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A new three-digit telephone number available to Canadians in need of mental health and suicide prevention will be in place by November 2023, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced on Wednesday.

In a statement, the CRTC 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."

The CRTC says telecommunications service providers must first introduce a 10-digit local number in certain areas where seven-digit dialing "is still the norm," including in Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Ontario and the Yellowknife area. This transition must happen by May 31, 2023.

From then, service providers will have until Nov. 30, 2023, to put 988 in place.

"We are taking a significant step in making mental health and suicide prevention resources more accessible to everyone in Canada," CRTC chairperson and CEO Ian Scott said in the statement Wednesday.

"A single, easy to remember point of contact will provide much-needed help to those in crisis and will be crucial to saving lives. Although much work is left to be done to bring help to people who need it, we have set accelerated timelines to ensure that 988 is implemented as quickly and as efficiently as possible."

The move comes more than a year-and-a-half after MPs in the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion in December 2020, to create a National Suicide Prevention 988 helpline.

The number would replace the 10-digit national number — 833-456-4566 — run by Canada's Suicide Prevention Service, which critics say is much harder to remember.

A previous online petition calling on the federal government to adopt the three-digit number received tens of thousands of signatures.

Conservative B.C. MP Todd Doherty, who introduced the motion that received unanimous approval in the House back in 2020, released a video on his Twitter account saying he was "moved to tears" by the CRTC's decision to adopt 988.

"I'm thankful ... for everybody that brought their voice forward to get this done," he said. "It's so needed and just a heartfelt thanks."

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) will be playing a role in seeing this crisis line become a reality. The federal health agency is being tasked with determining who will manage the calls made, and the scope of services offered through the line.

In a statement, PHAC said that the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has been selected as the organization to lead co-ordination of services connected to the line.

"As a first step, CAMH will develop partnerships and collaborations with key organizations across Canada to start building capacity, and engage with stakeholders to inform the scope and requirements of a timely, quality service," read PHAC's statement. "PHAC will also be engaging stakeholders from a range of sectors, provinces and territories, Indigenous partners, public safety officials, people with lived experience, crisis services, and mental health experts on the scope and service delivery elements."

The federal government says there were about 4,500 deaths by suicide in Canada each year between 2017 and 2019, amounting to 12 deaths per day, with rates and risks for suicide higher in men, youth, people between 45 and 59, and members of the LGBTQ2S+ and certain Indigenous communities.

There were hopes that the hotline would have been established by the end of 2021. However, the matter has been held up by CRTC consultations.

In a statement expanding on his initial reaction, Doherty said that while it's been more than 600 days of "frustrating and unnecessary" waiting—during which time lockdowns, restrictions, isolation and uncertainty have tested the mental health of Canadians— “today’s announcement is great news and a step in the right direction."

“This approval and the implementation of a three-digit suicide prevention hotline (988) will save lives and will remove a critical barrier facing too many who are struggling with nowhere to turn," Doherty said.

With files from CTV News and The Canadian Press

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