If you are in distress, you can text 988 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.
The CatalystConversations on Mental Health
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In early November, American actor Mark Duplass wrote about his mental health challenges on Instagram, including hosting a live space to discuss his strategies for coping, a part of which involves “a temporary denial of some of the heavy darkness so that I can focus on the light.”
Duplass, who has appeared in The Morning Show and The Mindy Project, encourages followers to phone the 988 any-time call and messaging service, which began in the U.S. in July 2022. As posts, mentions, articles, and conversations increase, there’s hope that those three digits will become common knowledge like 911.
Canada’s 988 suicide crisis helpline, which launched on November 30, means that people across the country can receive support via phone or text 24 hours a day. Callers will receive bilingual, trauma-informed culturally appropriate support from trained responders. While the service is designed to respond to those at risk of suicide, no one will be turned away. Those seeking to access other mental health supports, may be directed to other services in their area, for example.
“This will save lives,” says Michel Rodrigue, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). “The 988 service is a vital support and more than just a number — a simple call in a time of crisis can be a turning point. This helpline breaks the silence and offers support to individuals.”
How it works
After texting or dialing 988, callers will receive a brief message to confirm that they have reached the right number. They will then be asked a few basic questions — for example, if they’d like to speak to someone in English or French — after which they’ll be connected with a trained responder in their community who will listen and provide support.
Calls or texts to 988 are confidential. No personally identifiable information will be disclosed or shared outside the 988 network, except as required or permitted by law, or when emergency intervention is needed to support the safety and well-being of the caller or texter, and/or the safety of others. The service is based on collaborative, person-centred approaches that use the least intrusive interventions to increase safety.
The service was established by the federal government and delivered by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). When people call 988, they’ll be supported by a decentralized, community-based service delivered through 39 partner centres and agencies across the country. These include distress centres and crisis lines, national agencies like Kids Help Phone and the Hope for Wellness Helpline, and local organizations such as South Asian Canadians Health and Social Services, an Ontario-based non-profit in Brampton.
The Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region, one of the centres in the 988 helpline network, takes calls from 613 and 343 area codes. Its responders are trained via the internationally recognized, certified suicide prevention model Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training — also known as ASIST.
Its responders take ASIST as part of their 60-hour training, which covers everything from the phone system to active listening to crisis intervention. Kathyrn Leroux, the centre’s manager of media, marketing, and communications, has also taken the training.
She notes that having responders nearby enables 988 organizations to draw on local knowledge when callers need other social or emergency services. In cases where a centre is receiving a “rollover” call — that is, from another community or city when the local lines are at capacity — responders rely on services like 211 – a publicly accessible database of community supports – for referrals. Having these designated rollover services helps to avoid long wait times. Where there is a wait time, callers will receive a message encouraging them to stay on the line or the text thread.
Learning from the U.S.
Concerns about capacity have been part of studies about Canada’s 988 rollout, including those the MHCC raised in a 2021 policy brief. Planners of the 988 launch were able to gain insights on this topic based on experiences in the U.S. and the Netherlands (where the number is 113) ahead of implementation.
Since July 2022, the U.S. has invested nearly $1 billion in the service and has responded to nearly five million contacts. In the first year, it has been able to decrease its average response time from 2 minutes 39 seconds to 41 seconds. Its 988 number is supported by more than 200 local and state-run call centres, and over time has expanded to add text and chat services in Spanish along with specialized services for 2SLGBTQI+ youth. Future developments include video phone access to better serve deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. As the service ramps up, more public campaigns may be on the horizon. A recent USA Today story showed that a year after its implementation, awareness rates (13%) still have a ways to go.
Even with the insights from other countries, Canada’s launch and maintenance of 988 is a complex task. Alongside the country’s vastness, diversity, and principles of inclusion, it needs to deal with technical considerations. To give just one example, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had to transition to 10-digit dialing in Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Ontario, and Yellowknife before they could get the 988 number up and running.
People in Canada will start to see information across social media between now and February as the service launches and service providers acclimate. So far, the federal government has allotted $156 million over three years for the service.
As it rolls out, 988 providers will be tracking the number of contacts (calls and texts), wait times, and the abandonment rate – when a caller or texter ends the contact before connecting with a responder – with a view to improving service times.
Say it early, say it often
The phrase “say it early, say it often” serves as shorthand, both for responders and for anyone involved in conversations about suicide. Why? Because it emphasizes an open, straightforward, and non-judgmental dialogue that is at the heart of training initiatives.
“Conversation is important,” Leroux says. “We want to get away from ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ and ask more straightforward questions such as ‘Are you thinking of suicide?’ and then ‘Have you done anything to harm yourself today?’ Doing that really allows you to focus in and helps people open up. It demonstrates that you are willing to talk about it and talk about it in a straightforward way. It allows you to determine where they are and get people the help they need.”
Distress Centre responders are also trained in crisis de-escalation that uses a range of questions to assist with identifying the scale of the issue and the next steps. No matter the call, the goal is the same, Leroux says: to get people to safety or to a safety plan.
The scale of the issue Suicide remains a significant public health concern in Canada, affecting individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. It also disproportionately affects certain populations, including girls, men and boys, people serving federal sentences, survivors of suicide loss and suicide attempts, 2SLGBTQI+ groups, and some First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities.
According to Statistics Canada, about 4,500 people in our country die by suicide every year, which is around 12 people a day. And for every person lost to suicide, many more experience suicidal ideation or attempts.
The reasons for suicide are complex: they include biological, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual, economic, and other factors. According to a leading researcher in the field, the people who think about and attempt suicide are seeking an end to deep and intense psychological pain.
When it comes to preventing suicide, how we talk about it matters. Safe, factual, and responsible portrayals and messaging can have a positive impact. When discussing suicide, it’s also important to include any preventive actions taken, convey narratives that demonstrate hope and resilience about recovery, and mention the resources available for help and support.
Societal shifts And as we learn more about suicide, the conversation is shifting. The Senate standing committee on social affairs, science, and technology’s recent update to the federal framework for suicide prevention included recommendations to:
This shift in language also resonates with other perspectives; for example, the terms life promotion and wellness, which many Indigenous communities use when discussing suicide prevention. The First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework — developed by the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation with Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners — identifies hope, meaning, belonging, and purpose as underpinning many Indigenous ways of knowing. As the framework explains, aligning these four aspects in a person’s everyday life brings that person a feeling of wholeness that protects them and acts as a buffer against mental health risks and potential suicidal behaviours.
Moira Farr has also noticed a change in the conversation since After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor’s Tale was published in 1999 — a book that delves into the death of her partner. Farr is a journalist and an instructor who researches and writes on a variety of topics for international and national publications.
“I would say there has definitely been a shift in people’s willingness to openly discuss mental health issues, including suicide, in the past 20 years,” she says. “The campaigns to raise awareness about how and where to get help and to get people talking more honestly about their own mental health struggles seem to me to have been a positive force.”
By promoting understanding and empathy, we can create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable discussing their mental health challenges. This includes recognizing that seeking help is a sign of strength — not weakness — and that mental health is just as important as physical health.
“The new helpline underlines the reality and importance of suicide prevention,” Rodrigue says. “It speaks to the fact that suicide is a significant public health issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds — and can be prevented. This is a collective effort that will help to reach more people in Canada to support their well-being.”
Fateema Sayani is the manager of content & strategic communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
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