Canada rolls out new 988 suicide crisis helpline

Provides a toll-free texting and calling service that will be available 24/7 to Canadians

A nationwide suicide prevention hotline is now available to Canadians struggling with mental health challenges, with the launch of a new three-digit helpline across the country on 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 became available at 9 a.m. ET on November 30.

In Canada, approximately 12 people die by suicide every day, which amounts to 4,500 deaths per year, according to PHAC.

The goal of the 988 helpline is to prevent suicide by making it as 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, according to CAMH.

This training covers practices such as assessing suicide risk, aiding individuals with coping techniques and collaboratively creating safety plans.

The 988 hotline mirrors a similar service that was launched in the United States 18 months ago.

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.

Can children access 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.

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.

Text-based option to the 988 helpline will particularly benefit young people, who spend large amounts of time on their smartphones.


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