A new toll-free, three-digit suicide prevention helpline launched across Canada on Thursday morning.
People having suicidal thoughts or other mental health distress can now call or text 988 to reach a trained responder 24 hours a day, seven days a week — no matter where they live in the country.
“My main message that I want to say to Canadians is that we see you, we hear you, and that you’re not alone. That if you are struggling … there is a low-barrier, easy access, warm voice on the other end of the line,” said Ya’ara Saks, federal minister of mental health and addictions, in an interview before the launch.
About 12 people die by suicide in Canada every day, adding up to about 4,500 lives lost each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. More than 200 people in Canada attempt suicide every day.
The $158.4-million project is funded and overseen by the public health agency and led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
“No one will be turned away. Anyone who reaches out to 988 will receive the support that they need,” said Dr. Allison Crawford, chief medical officer for the helpline and a psychiatrist at CAMH.
“It’s explicitly a suicide prevention service and responders are trained in suicide prevention. But we also understand that people who are struggling with their mental health may not know that they have suicidal ideation,” she said in an interview.
“We do know that (those) people can be at increased risk and will benefit from connecting with 988,” Crawford said, adding that the helpline is also for people who are worried about someone else who may be at risk for suicide.
The 988 helpline expands on the existing Talk Suicide Canada helpline, which had a toll-free 10-digit number and did not have 24-hour texting service.
In addition to CAMH, the 988 response network is staffed by more than three dozen partner organizations, including Kids Help Phone and community mental health agencies across the country.
That network is designed to link helpline users with a responder “as close to home as possible,” Crawford said.
That’s important because “a call to a crisis line is the first step to getting help. And it’s often not the last step,” said Emma Potter, senior director of service systems at the Canadian Mental Health Association branch in Edmonton, which is one of the partner agencies.
The next step might be to connect the person to local counselling, mental health, or social supports — which is easier if the responder is in the community, she said.
An easy-to-remember three-digit number is critical for someone in a mental health crisis, said Al Raimundo, who struggled with suicidal thoughts as a teen and then later as an adult.
Raimundo consulted on the development of the helpline as a person with lived experience and as a mental health advocate.
“When I’m in crisis, when I’m struggling with my mental health, it really affects my memory. And so while I’m doing well, I could remember a nine-digit or 10- digit phone number. When I’m struggling, I really can’t,” the 34-year-old said in an interview from Vancouver prior to the launch.
Even with “an intimate understanding of the mental health system,” Raimundo struggled with reaching out for help when they felt suicidal after a cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago.
“When I Googled crisis lines, there were so many and I wasn’t sure which one was the right one for me in that moment. It was easier to do nothing than it was to reach out to someone,” said Raimundo.
Potter agreed that “athree-digit number is going to make all of the difference.”
“When you’re somebody who is struggling with thoughts of suicide or who is in crisis, trying to find or remember a 10-digit number can be just one step too far for people,” she said.
“I think having that three-digit number that can be utilized (by) both phone and text is really quite significant for our country.”
The U.S. already has a national suicide and crisis helpline in place and also uses the 988 number.
Saks, the mental health and addictions minister, said the teams building Canada’s helpline met regularly with their American counterparts to learn from their experience.
One of the key lessons was a strong demand for connecting by text, she said.
More than 1,000 responders have been trained to work on the 988 helpline so far, with more to come as they continue to expand the service, Saks said.
They are based in a variety of organizations rooted in different cultures including the Indigenous agency Hope for Wellness, she said.
People will be able to access the 988 helpline in English or French, but other languages will also be available through those diverse organizations, Saks said.