CAMH tapped to lead rollout of 988 suicide crisis line

Canadians will soon be able to dial 988 to access mental health and suicide prevention services. Faiza Amin speaks with organizations about the critical tool that will provide much needed supports to Canadians.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has been tapped to lead the rollout of the 988 suicide crisis line, which was approved for launch on Wednesday by the CRTC.

The CRTC confirmed that they would be launching a new emergency crisis number for people in need of immediate mental health or suicide prevention support in Canada. It’s expected to launch in Nov. 2023.

In a statement to CityNews, CAMH said they are looking forward to working closely with key partners from different groups and communities to develop the service.

“[We will be] building on our work on Talk Suicide Canada, to bring high quality, evidence-based, equitable suicide prevention services to people living in Canada.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which selected CAMH to coordinate the launch of 988, said they would also be consulting U.S. counterparts to learn from their experience implementing the service.

The U.S. implemented 988 earlier this year. The number connects callers with trained mental health counsellors 24 hours a day.

Alisa Simon, the Executive Vice President for Innovation at Kids Help Phone, tells CityNews they have been very supportive of a three-digit crisis hotline.

“The reality is right now, particularly for adults, it can be incredibly confusing to try and find where it is you need to go when you’re in crisis,” said Simon. “You don’t want people who are actively suicidal or impacted by suicide to be Googling where to get help. You want them to just know in the same way they know how to dial 911.”

Need for crisis hotline has been growing

Canada has the third highest suicide rate in the industrialized world, according to Youth Mental Health Canada. PHAC says 12 people die by suicide every day on average across the country.

Simon said Kids Help Phone would be involved in helping launch the number.

“To truly be able to do this, you have to make sure that every person that dials is going to quickly and seamlessly get connected … That’s why Kids Help Phone is at this table because we have 33 years of being able to answer contacts from young people. We’ve got lots of experience on the front line. We’ve got experience with technology.”

The need for a crisis hotline like this has been growing for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has sharp increased the need for mental health assistance in both young people and adults, according to Simon.

cell phone

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has been tapped to lead the rollout of the 988 suicide crisis line, which was approved for launch on Wednesday by the CRTC. Photo: Vladimir Mun.

She said before COVID hit, they were connecting with 1.9 million young people per year.

“We are now taking up between 4.5 and 4.9 million connections a year. In fact, since COVID began in March, we have taken almost 12 million connections with young people, and so that requires thinking differently, building scalable solutions.”

Simon said they would be sharing these solutions with those developing the three-digit line.

Rachel Bromberg, the co-founder of Reach Out Responses Network and Executive Director of the International Crisis Response Association, tells CityNews she hopes the implementation of this line will coincide with increased funding for local and regional crisis lines.

“Regional call centers have been overwhelmed just because they haven’t received sufficient funding in order to respond to the demand,” said Bromber. “Someone in crisis can’t necessarily wait on hold for 30 minutes, and people who are waiting on hold, they often hang up, they don’t stay on the line to get the support they need.

She added it would be key once the number launches to inform people about what the service is and show them they can trust it.

“Lots of people have misconceptions about what crisis lines are for, or they feel like they’re not in a bad enough situation to call a crisis line, but we really want to encourage people if you need support, call for that support.”

Both Simon and Bromberg say to remember if you are thinking of suicide or worried about someone else, there is a number you can call right now.

Talk Suicide Canada can be reached 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566, or you can text 45645 between 4 p.m. or midnight EST. Kids Help Phone can be reached at 1-800-668-6868 or 686868 by text.

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