On December 11, 2020, the House of Commons unanimously voted in favor of MP Todd Doherty’s motion to ask the federal government to establish a national 9-8-8 number for mental health crisis calls and suicide prevention.
There are currently approximately 200 local and regional emergency response centers across Canada. The federally funded Canada Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS) hotline operates nationally and connects 10 emergency centers across the country. CSPS is available nationwide, but the 10-digit number can be difficult to remember. The hope is that a national 9-8-8 line in Canada is the equivalent of 9-1-1 for mental health.
Kathleen Finlay lost her father to suicide, a tragedy that led her to advocate mental health and lead the 988 campaign for Canada. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR), Finlay explains why moving to a three-digit national number is important:
“If you need the police, fire brigade or ambulance in an emergency, call 9-1-1. Everyone knows the importance of these simple three digits when an emergency arises. “
A national 9-8-8 line would not only improve access to resources but also provide an alternative to 9-1-1 and reduce unnecessary contact with the police for those in a mental emergency. A national 9-8-8 line could also help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Finlay says:
“9-8-8 would normalize the process of seeking help so that longer 800 numbers don’t.” The comparison with 9-1-1 is appropriate. There is no stigma attached to using this number for police, fire or ambulance services. “
A national number of 9-8-8 has the potential to play a key role in suicide prevention but would only be part of a much-needed improved mental health response. In an interview with TMHR, Roger S. McIntyre, Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto and Head of the Unit of Psychopharmacology in Mood Disorders at the University Health Network (UHN), talks about the complexities of suicide:
“Suicide is a tragic outcome. It is not a mental illness itself, but it is a proxy for mental illness. It must be boldly said that there is no single cause of suicide. It is misleading and inaccurate to say that someone died of suicide for a reason. It is multi-causal and multifactorial. “
CSPS has seen calls have increased 200% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. To understand the suicide risk associated with the pandemic, it is important to consider the broader environmental factors that affect suicide rates. McIntyre explains that suicide rates are sensitive to changes in the economic environment, such as sudden job loss or financial ruin.
“If the government is able to put in place programs like financial indulgence and financial benefits to people who have lost their jobs, to pay for groceries and bills, and to care for their children – as well as provide psychiatric first aid – , this would significantly mitigate the expected increase in suicide rates. “
The Government of Canada has implemented public health and social assistance measures to reduce economic insecurity and provide social assistance and timely mental health services throughout the pandemic. According to McIntyre, the results of a study showed that suicide rates actually fell slightly in 2020 compared to 2019. The results have the potential to advance national suicide reduction strategies:
“It speaks to the complexity of suicide. It’s really modifiable based on risk and resilience. Having these programs in place could reduce your risk. “
The establishment of the national 9-8-8 line is just one of many initiatives needed to meet the psychological needs of the public and reduce the risk of suicide. Commenting on the line, McIntyre comments:
“The service offers the opportunity to address people’s needs from a mental health perspective and also gives them some navigation in the system. I think that’s just as important. It’s one thing to have the services, but if people don’t know how to find them, it’s not good. You have to have both. “
If you are concerned that someone you know is at risk of suicide, reach out to them. There is no harm in using the word “suicide” and it is important to be direct. This lets the person know that they can open up again. It’s also important to let people know that help is available (see below).
Some of the warning signs to look out for include withdrawing from others, preoccupying with death, getting things sorted out, saying goodbye, and having thoughts of suicide. Other signs include hopelessness or helplessness, substance abuse, futility, fear, captivity, anger, recklessness, and mood swings.
If you or someone you know is in need, please reach out to someone at the following resources:
– Sharon Bae, contributing writer
Feature: Cottenbro at Pexels, Creative Commons
First: Pixabay at Pexels, Creative Commons
Second: Pixabay at Pexels, Creative Commons