Advertisement

988 Comes to Canada

According to Statistics Canada, 4,500 people in this country die by suicide every year. That is equivalent to 12 people taking their own lives every single day. For every death by suicide, at least seven to 10 people either attempted suicide or grieved the loss of someone who took their own life. Sheryl Boswell, Executive Director of Youth Mental Health Canada said it's expected that 446 people aged 10 to 24 will die by suicide each year. Given the rates of suicide in Canada, Boswell said the country is "never doing enough" in terms of supporting those who struggle with suicidal thoughts. (Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press, 2022-07-17, Mental health experts say Canada should have a three-digit suicide crisis hotline) Suicide is also the second-leading cause of death for children and young adults under 30 years old.

In December 2020, Todd Doherty, Conservative MP for Cariboo—Prince George in B.C. rose in the House of Commons and put forward a motion to establish a national suicide prevention hotline that would consolidate all suicide crisis numbers into one easy-to-remember three-digit hotline, and that would be accessible to all Canadians. “The rates of suicide are growing at alarming rates. As elected officials and as leaders, and especially during this period of difficulty as a nation, Canadians are counting on us,” Doherty said ahead of his motion. “The stories are heartbreaking, but colleagues, we must do better than just give them hope. We can leave a legacy of action by breaking the stigma associated with mental illness and mental injury, and eliminating unnecessary barriers for Canadians who choose to seek help.” Doherty’s motion passed unanimously.

In 2022, after the CRTC announced it would be moving forward with a 988 Suicide Prevention Line, Doherty shared with media that it marked the culmination of a long personal journey for him. He lost his best friend to suicide at the age of 14.

“I lost a good friend of mine — my best friend — when I was 14. I was the last person to see him. And, you know, all these years later … you carry so much guilt,” Doherty said. “I've worked with at-risk youth and in suicide prevention and crisis intervention in my early years. And you can't help carry … the responsibility, maybe the burden, of trying to ensure that you are doing whatever you can for these families. …I wish all those years ago … before I said goodbye to my friend, that I could just send that message to people that, you know, regardless of the darkness that you're in and the feelings that you're feeling … just know that … our world is a better place because you're in it.” (https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-the-thursday-edition-1.6569818/this-mp-lost-a-friend-to-suicide-so-he-fought-to-bring-a-crisis-hotline-to-canada-1.6569819)

Fifteen months later, on November 30, 2023, Canada’s 988 system launched. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, telecommunication providers have made 988 available to everyone in the country by phone call or text. It is also available for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as they can access ASL/LSQ interpretation through 988. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is coordinating the service and will be reporting to the Public Health Agency of Canada on how many calls were received, the time taken to answer them, and abandonment rates from someone hanging up or ending the call before reaching a responder. Eventually, it will provide information about user satisfaction, without handing over any personally identifiable information. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/988-hotline-mental-health-canada-1.7043603)

When someone calls or texts 988, the responders will ask if the person is having thoughts of ending their life or harming themself. "Once that elephant in the room has been addressed, it makes it easier to kind of listen to someone's story and see how they got to where they are and how they're feeling," Nausheen Ali said. Ali coordinates 988 training for South Asian Canadian Health and Social Services in Brampton, Ont., a not-for-profit organization, that partners with 988. The responders then take a non-judgmental approach to discussing whether there's a plan, associated mental health issues, use of substances, protective factors and strengths, supports, and coping strategies. As the person's stress lessens and any immediate risk is addressed, the conversation shifts to collaborating on a safety plan. In most cases, emergency services won't need to be contacted, but 911 will be activated if someone is at immediate or imminent risk of harming themself or someone else, and the 988 responder will stay connected on the call to support the person while they wait for help to arrive.

Those under the age of 18 will be offered specialized support.

On July 16, 2022, American authorities launched a 988 mental health hotline to offer those struggling with suicidal thoughts an easy-to-remember number that would connect them with trained mental health counselors rather than police. Developers of the Canadian service observed the launch of the U.S. helpline, and through consultations, used what they had learned to help build the system here. Based on experience in the U.S., the Canadian system could experience high demand immediately after the launch, which could cause some callers to experience a longer wait time. If so, people will hear a message encouraging them to stay on the line. It's expected Canada’s 988 will receive between 600,000 and 700,000 calls in the first year. Currently, 39 organizations across the country are involved and tasked with creating teams of responders to handle calls. Developers of the national line want to continue adding more groups across the country, because responders who work locally, not only understand the issues faced in a particular region, but they are aware of accessible resources and can get a person in crisis connected with the right supports.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday, November 30, 2023, to announce 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.”

A free national three-digit line that is accessible to people right across the country 24 hours a day is something Al Raimundo is excited about, knowing that it will help people in a time of need. That continuity across the country is crucial. “So, as I move or travel, if I am experiencing [a] 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.” (https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/we-are-hoping-that-it-saves-lives-canada-launches-new-988-suicide-crisis-helpline-1.6666997)

Raimundo helped in the development process, working alongside CAMH as a person with lived experience. Raimundo first tried to access crisis intervention at the age of 13, but without putting the correct words into the Google search engine, the needed information wasn’t being brought forth and a suicide attempt resulted. Roughly 20 years later, becoming overwhelmed with dread and anxiety following a cancer diagnosis, Raimundo again tried accessing crisis services. However, even as an adult, Raimundo couldn't find the right places through internet searches, and that nearly led to another suicide attempt.

Raimundo explains to others that a suicidal feeling leads to swirling thoughts, which prevents a person from thinking clearly enough to locate resources or help, while also making them believe they are not worthy of that help or support. Also, in times of crisis, people don’t have any excess energy to use to try and find help, as they are spending so much of their energy just fighting to be alive.

“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.”

One death by suicide is too many, and now help is only three digits away.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder