Ontario teen is pushing for a three-digit mental health crisis hotline. Politicians are starting to listen

·7 min read

Madi Muggridge was 13 when she first reached out to a suicide hotline. After searching online for somewhere to turn, she found a chat-based crisis service and sent a note asking for help.

Several hours passed with no response.

“I sat there for three hours with the (screen) in front of me, and no one ever got on,” Muggridge said. “It really disappointed me, and I felt more alone than when I even started trying to contact them.”

Muggridge’s sense of helplessness quickly grew. She wrote a suicide note the next day for her parents and left the house. It was only after a loved one reached out in time that she turned back home.

“My family was able to get me help, but I know not everyone has that support system,” she said.

Six years later, Muggridge, now 19 and living in London, Ont., is working towards ensuring every Canadian has support to turn to when they need it. Inspired by a U.S. decision in July to create a three-digit national suicide hotline, Muggridge quickly launched a Change.org campaign asking Canadian lawmakers to do the same.

But she is also calling on politicians to take it a step further and implement a national dispatch service for people experiencing a mental health crisis that is separate from police and 911 services, citing incidents where people were harmed or killed by police during wellness checks.

Now, members of the federal Conservative Party are listening, and have called on the prime minister to implement a 988 hotline in Canada. But the political will towards making the line a reality does not include the emergency dispatch service Muggridge hopes for — at least not yet.

Todd Doherty, the MP for Cariboo-Prince George and the special adviser on mental health and wellness to Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, began the conversation in the House of Commons by tabling a motion in October calling for the creation of a 988 line. He said it would be similar to the 10-digit line currently run by Crisis Services Canada, but it would be a streamlined, three-digit line that would be easier for people in crisis to remember.

Muggridge, however, sees that as only a start, and hopes the line will evolve to also offer dispatch services separate from police to those in crisis.

“If some day they were able to make it a number that is more of an emergency line for mental health, where people can come to you, that would be the best overall outcome,” she said.

Muggridge’s petition, which launched in July and has garnered almost 30,000 signatures, said a three-digit number separate from 911 ensures “individuals will instead be met with the people who are most adequately trained to help them,” like medical and mental health professionals.

The petition also mentions people in crisis have been “killed or harmed after police are called for a mental health emergency,” and that risk is especially high for those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

“I feel 911 is overwhelmed with so many mental health emergencies, and I also feel like they’re not always the most equipped to deal with them,” Muggridge told the Star.

Police forces in Canada, such as the Toronto Police Service and the York Regional Police Service, have Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams that include social workers and nurses to assist officers during a mental health crisis call. Toronto police’s team responded to more than 6,400 calls in 2019, according to police.

But calls persist in Toronto and elsewhere to implement mental health crisis services that are entirely separate from police, particularly following the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous Toronto woman who died in May after police were called to her apartment for a mental health issue.

Currently, the U.S. line, which was approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act for a 2022 rollout, does not include dispatch services. It will also not replace the national, 10-digit suicide hotline and will instead work alongside it.

The American line will cost around $570 million (U.S.) in its first year, according to a report by the FCC. Almost half of that amount will be a one-time fee to replace the phone infrastructure necessary to implement the line across the United States.

In an interview with the Star, Doherty lauded the U.S. decision as a game-changer and one that should be followed swiftly and harmoniously in Canada.

“We want to try to remove every barrier possible for those that are seeking help,” Doherty said, adding it’s especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, where calls to national suicide hotlines in Canada increased over 200 per cent.

“This is a non-partisan issue,” Doherty said, adding it is about saving lives.

Since tabling his motion, Doherty has contacted Muggridge and shared her petition online to signal growing support for a 988 line. He has also brought up the idea several times in the House of Commons while his motion awaits debate, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Health Minister Patty Hajdu to commit to implementing the line.

John Barlow, the Conservative MP for Foothills, on Thursday also called on the government to set up the 988 system in Canada, citing a growing suicide and opioid overdose crisis in Alberta.

Hajdu responded on the floor and said she is “very interested” in the idea of a hotline, though she called on Barlow to encourage Alberta to reverse its decision of closing a safe consumption site in the province, “which is making it harder for people who use opioids to stay alive.”

Absent from any discourse on the political floor, however, is Muggridge’s call to develop a nationwide dispatch line for those in a mental health crisis.

Doherty said he had no problem with the idea of implementing a dispatch line separate from police. But the focus at the moment, he added, is to implement a national suicide prevention hotline that is easily accessible.

“We know an abundance of calls for RCMP or police or fire and paramedics are in response to mental health crisis calls, and sometimes they’re not the ones that are the most equipped,” Doherty said.

But what the final iteration of the three-digit line will look like, he added, is to be determined by others, including government and national mental associations. “I think the critical first step right now is getting the minister to agree that we need to bring that simple three-digit number,” he said.

Muggridge, who is currently focused on following her passion of becoming an animal protection officer, said she is thankful there is political will behind implementing a more easily accessible national crisis line after her disappointing experience of reaching out for help.

Though she reiterated that a three-digit crisis line is only the first step, and she hopes her calls to implement a mental health emergency dispatch line separate from police will not be drowned out.

“I’m hoping it starts with the crisis line,” Muggridge said, a step that she said may force politicians to reimagine what responses to mental health crises could look like in the future.

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_

Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star