Canadians who need immediate mental health crisis intervention will be able to text or call 988 and obtain counselling in the fall of next year, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced on Wednesday.
Starting at the end of November 2023, calls and texts to 988 will be directed to a mental health crisis or suicide prevention service, free of charge, once the number is implemented by telephone and wireless service providers, the CRTC said in a statement.
According to the commission, the number will allow for “greater access regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status” as it will be available nationwide and around the clock.
The pressure was mounting for Canada to establish a three-digit suicide crisis hotline similar to the one implemented by the United States on July 16 this year.
The 988 mental health hotline American authorities launched was aimed at offering citizens struggling with suicidal thoughts an easy-to-remember number that will connect them with trained mental health counsellors rather than police.
Dr. Allison Crawford, the chief medical officer for Talk Suicide Canada and a psychiatrist with Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, told The Canadian Press in July that such a hotline is the gold standard for phone-based suicide prevention.
She and other experts argue a system like 988 would both make it easier for Canadians to access urgent help and show those struggling with mental health crises that suicide prevention is taken seriously.
B.C. Conservative member of Parliament Todd Doherty, applauded the move. In a tweet Wednesday, Doherty said the new hotline “will save lives.”
“While the continued delays have been frustrating and unnecessary, today’s announcement is great news and a step in the right direction,” he said.
Canada’s House of Commons had unanimously voted in favour of Doherty’s motion of establishing a three-digit suicide prevention number in 2020.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is working closely with their U.S. counterparts to learn from their experiences in implementing the 988 service.
“This number would be faster to dial, and would remove the challenge of looking up or remembering a 10 or seven-digit number,” the health agency said in a statement Wednesday.
The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH) also released a statement following the announcement, saying they have “long advocated for mental health to be considered in parity with physical health and substance use health.”
“This mental health crisis hotline is a crucial step toward that,” it added.
The alliance said it’ll continue advocating to the government for legislation to put mental health in parity with physical health.
How will the 988 crisis hotline work?
In order for 988 to work across Canada, the CRTC said 10-digit dialling must first be introduced in areas where seven‑digit dialling is still the norm. This includes Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Ontario and the Yellowknife area.
“The CRTC is requiring service providers to complete the transition to 10-digit local dialing in these areas by May 31, 2023,” the commission said.
Once the transition is complete, the CRTC explained that service providers will have six months to make the necessary changes to their networks to enable callers to dial or text 988.
This will ensure that 988 is launched across Canada at the same time, the CRTC said.
While work is still underway to introduce 988 in Canada, PHAC said people can continue to access Talk Suicide Canada by calling 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or via text to 45645 in the evenings. This service offers bilingual crisis and suicide prevention support.
For Residents of Quebec can call 1-866-277-3553 or visit suicide.ca for support by text and online chat.
Children and young adults in Canada in need of mental health supports and crisis services can contact Kids Help Phone, or text CONNECT to 686868 from anywhere in Canada, any time, about anything, said PHAC.
Who will lead the service?
As the agency prepares for the number’s introduction in the country, PHAC further announced that the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has been selected as the organization to lead the coordination of service delivery for the national three-digit number.
“As a first step, CAMH will develop partnerships and collaborations with key organizations across Canada to start building capacity, and engage with stakeholders to inform the scope and requirements of a timely, quality service,” PHAC said.
Stakeholders from a range of sectors, Provinces and Territories, Indigenous partners, public safety officials, people with lived experience, crisis services, and mental health experts will be included.
CAMH’s new role in leading the development of 988 service delivery in Canada builds on their experience delivering Talk Suicide Canada, previously known as the Canada Suicide Prevention Service, PHAC said.
— with files from The Canadian Press