After two years of consultations amid urgent calls for more mental-health support, Canada’s telecom regulator has approved a new three-digit phone number – 988 – that would give callers in crises access to immediate suicide prevention support. But they won’t be able to use the number for another year.
As of Nov. 30, 2023, Canadians will be able to text or call the number from anywhere in the country free.
In the meantime, Canadians can continue to use one of the 10-digit numbers for mental-health and suicide prevention support: 1-833-456-4566 across the country and 1-866-277-3553 in Quebec.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has faced pressure from mental-health organizations in past years for being slow to act in what many call a mental-health crisis. Since the start of the pandemic, suicidal ideation among adults is up 4.2 per cent, Statistics Canada says. According to the telecom regulator, approximately 12 Canadians die by suicide every day.
In the U.S., the emergency number, which uses the same three digits, went live on July 16.
Before the number can come into effect, some service providers will need to perform technical upgrades to their systems. According to the CRTC, the 988 function requires a 10-digit phone system to operate (this includes an area code like 416 and the seven digits that follow). In some areas, including Newfoundland and Labrador, Northern Ontario and the Yellowknife area, seven-digit calling is still the norm. In order to support the new function, service providers are required to make the transition to the 10-digit system before the end of next May.
It was emotional news for Todd Doherty, the member of Parliament for Cariboo-Prince George in British Columbia, who spearheaded the calls for a suicide-prevention hotline. Mr. Doherty lost a close childhood friend to suicide at 14. His motion to unite Canada’s crisis services was passed unanimously in December, 2020.
“It took me over an hour to compose myself when I got the news. I had tears of joy,” Mr. Doherty said. “There’s still a long road ahead of us, but this will save lives, I truly believe it.”
Sheryl Boswell, the executive director of Youth Mental Health Canada, said that while the shortened number is a good first step in providing better mental-health support, Canada needs further change to its crisis infrastructure. The next big step, she said, will be working with mental-health experts, instead of police, to respond to crisis calls and perform wellness checks.
“What’s really important is that we have community-based solutions to these emergencies,” Ms. Boswell said. “Health issues are not criminal activities. Police should never be involved.”
Some Canadian cities have already started integrating non-police services within their emergency response teams. In March, Toronto launched a pilot program to send civilian-led mobile units to respond to mental-health crisis calls instead of law enforcement.
There has been a long wait for a short crisis number in Canada.
In 2006, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention proposed to assign 511 as a crisis support number, but the CRTC instead allocated these digits to a weather information line. After Mr. Doherty’s motion was passed in 2020, the CRTC opened a public consultation to consider the advantages and challenges of this type of number, initially setting the deadline for responses in October, 2021. That deadline was later extended to March, 2022.
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