Government Commitments

Suicide Prevention

Canada’s new 988 suicide-prevention helpline starts today. Here’s what you need to know

November 30, 2023

Three-digit number is enlisted in battle against second most common cause of death among young people.

As of Thursday morning, suicide-prevention help in Canada is three digits away.Dreamstime / TNS

The Toronto Star: Three years in the making, Canada’s new three-digit phone number for suicide prevention launches Thursday.

Starting at 9 a.m. EST, if someone is thinking about suicide or is worried that someone else is thinking about suicide, health officials say, “they can call or text 988 for suicide-prevention support at any time of day or night.”

The helpline is being led and co-ordinated by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and funded — to the tune of $158.4 million — by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

Here is everything you need to know.

What is the 988 service?

The 988 helpline is a quick way for those contemplating suicide to reach out for help. It’s largely built on the foundation of the Talk Suicide Canada helpline, a 10-digit number (1-833-456-4566) that Canadians could — and can still — call to seek help.

The helpline is designed to put those people in touch with someone to talk to, usually someone from within their region, with wait times expected to be minimal.

According to PHAC, about 12 people die by suicide each day in Canada. That translates to almost 4,400 people per year.

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among young people nationwide, and studies have shown that certain populations in the country — including First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities — are more prone to be affected.

Who’s answering the phone?

At its launch, the 988 crisis helpline will feature 1,000 trained responders from 39 partner agencies in every province and territory, who will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Canada’s 988 helpline is expected to field more than 30,000 calls and more than 10,000 texts during its first month, according to estimates based on the Talk Suicide Canada helpline, the call load on the existing agencies and on a similar 988 service in the U.S.

The helpline will offer help in English and French, but also — through the Hope for Wellness Helpline — in Cree, Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin), and Inuktitut as well. Other languages will be served by finding interpreters; callers who are deaf or hard of hearing will have access to ASL interpretation.

With the partner agencies in each province and territory the goal is to link callers with help agencies within that region. That will be accomplished automatically based on the caller’s cellphone area code, so if you have kept your phone number after a move, the line could direct you to a service in the wrong area.

If there are no responders in the caller’s region available, their call will be routed to a central hub for a responder there. CAMH said it will monitor the 988 helpline to identify any tweaks that will need to be made.

Will I have to identify myself?

When a caller first dials 988, they will be greeted with a quick series of recorded questions: Do you want help in English or French? Would you like to speak to a responder that has experience supporting First Nations, Inuit or Métis communities? Are you under 18? (If so, the caller would be transferred to a partner agency with expertise in serving children and youth.)

After that, callers can provide as little or as much information as they choose to the responder.

Will emergency services be involved?

The vast majority of calls and texts to 988 will not involve the police or other emergency services, said a CAMH spokesperson — the only exceptions would be in situations of “imminent risk,” where a responder is convinced that the caller poses an immediate danger to themselves or to other people.

In those cases, 988 responders are trained to work with the caller before calling 911. If that becomes necessary, 988 responders would only share information with emergency services that is crucial to keeping the person safe, said CAMH officials.

What if I have other mental health issues, but am not feeling suicidal?

Callers who have non-suicidal mental health concerns are encouraged to call 211 or visit the site a Canada-wide resource for nonclinical health and social services.

Why 988?

Most of the three-digit numbers useful for such a helpline have already been designated for other uses, said PHAC officials. There are those numbers that have been assigned to other helplines — 911, 411, 211, for example. Also, the new number could also not infringe on existing 10-digit numbers, so area codes such as 416 and 613 are not an option.

Still, the primary consideration in choosing the number, according to the CRTC, was that the U.S. had already adopted 988 for its suicide-prevention helpline, so copying that creates North American uniformity and the benefit of piggybacking on the U.S. advertising of the number.

Steve McKinley, Staff Reporter

Steve McKinley is a Halifax-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @smckinley1.