Canada’s new 988 suicide prevention helpline has received approximately 1,000 calls and nearly 450 texts per day since its launch in November, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
While it might sound like an alarming number, it’s within the figures that CAMH had expected, Allison Crawford said, based on the need that they’ve seen in the years leading up to the helpline’s launch.
“We had projections about what we might expect. And this is kind of at the mid range, so well within the range of what we expected to receive and what we’re equipped to provide,” Crawford said. “So in that sense, it’s on track.”
Crawford is the chief medical officer of Canada’s new suicide prevention hotline and a psychiatrist with CAMH, which is tasked with operating the helpline. She told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Tuesday that they anticipate that the volume of calls and texts will “increase over time,” and that they’re prepared to address that need.
The federal government launched the dedicated three-digit helpline at the end of November with CAMH, after years of work and advocacy from mental health experts. Every year, around 4,500 people die by suicide in Canada.
“We know that the need exists for the service, and that’s definitely showing up in the number of calls and texts,” Crawford said.
Raising awareness of the helpline is still an ongoing quest. The ultimate goal is for the 988 helpline to be a number that every Canadian knows and would think of in a crisis.
“Having the three digit access was one of the most exciting parts of this initiative,” she said. “We already had a national 10 digit phone number and service. But with three digits, we know that that increases access to care because it’s easier to remember, especially in a time of crisis.”
The response they’ve gotten has shown that the helpline is already “off to a good start” in its first couple of months of operation, Crawford said. She added that in February, they will be implementing more ways for users to provide direct feedback on their experiences with the helpline.
Data collected on patient experience will also be compiled and made publicly available on an annual basis.
When a person calls or texts the 988 number, they are first greeted with a message letting them know they’ve arrived at the 988 helpline. After several questions, such as whether they want service in English or French, they are routed to a 988 provider that is the closest to them.
“988 is a network of service providers, there are almost 40 providers across every province and territory,” Crawford said.
This means that if you’re calling from northern Quebec, the helpline operator you end up speaking to or texting with will be a 988 responder from within that province, and as close to you as possible.
Responders are trained in suicide prevention, Crawford said, and work to both understand the needs and experiences of those who call, and also assess and assist if there is the risk of suicide.
Helpline addressing pressing need
Even before the pandemic, rates of mental distress were increasing across the population, Crawford said, particularly for young people.
One way that CAMH tracks mental health trends over a long period is the CAMH Monitor, which has been studying mental health trends in Ontario since 1977.
The study surveys around 3,000 Ontario adults each year to monitor substance use and mental health issues over time. The latest results, released last week, showed that in 2023, indicators of substance use and mental health struggles were on the rise across almost all categories compared to rates in 2018 or 2013.
The odds of respondents self-reporting poor or fair mental health was around six times higher in 2023 than it was ten years ago, the study found.
While the helpline is too new for CAMH to have statistics on the specific topics causing the most mental distress among those who phone in, Crawford said that callers often express distress relating to world events.
“So definitely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this hasn’t gone back down either, we see people very concerned about things related to social isolation to economic impacts,” she said, adding that this extends to issues beyond the pandemic.
She said that the helpline and its responders are working to ensure the help they provide is accessible and inclusive, including different perspectives “from gender perspectives, sexual orientation, perspectives, culture, ethnicity, different religious groups, we’ve met with people living in rural areas—we really are trying to take an intersectional perspective and understand people’s needs.”
When someone is in in a dark place mentally, it’s important to reach out to other people, Crawford said.
“If you’re distressed to find someone that you trust, and reach out to them to start a conversation, if you’re worried about someone, don’t be afraid to have that conversation with them and ask them, you know, how they’re doing, let them know that you’re concerned,” she said.
There are also resources online to help those struggling with their mental health, including on CAMH’s website and the Kids Help Phone website, she added.
“If there’s a situation in which someone is attempting to harm themselves, for example, you can always call 911 or 988. I would never leave those off the list.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.
Suicide Crisis Helpline (988)
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)
Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)
Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)
If you need immediate assistance, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.