988 suicide crisis hotline launches in Canada: What should you know about the system?

Canadians now have a 24/7 texting and calling service dedicated to preventing suicide.

A close up of the hands of a young woman using a mobile phone. (Photo via Getty Images)
The mental health crisis service 988: Suicide Crisis Helpline launched in Canada on Thursday. (Photo via Getty Images)

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Canadians officially have a new three-digit resource when it comes to mental health.

A new national mental health crisis hotline, 988: Suicide Crisis Helpline, launched in Canada on Thursday. Three years in the making, the helpline is led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

"The goal of 988 is to prevent suicide," CAMH psychiatrist and 988 medical head Dr. Allison Crawford tells Yahoo Canada. "We want to create easy access to suicide prevention by making it as simple as possible for people to get the help they need, when they need it most."

But what exactly is the new helpline aimed at prioritizing the mental health and well-being of Canadians? Read on to learn everything you need to know.

Canada's new 988 hotline is aimed at preventing suicide nationwide. (Photo via Getty Images)
Canada's new 988 hotline is aimed at preventing suicide nationwide. (Photo via Getty Images)

What is 988?

The new three-digit hotline, 988, is available to anyone in Canada via text or phone call who may be thinking about suicide or worried about someone else. Offered in both English and French, the service offers live support from trained responders 24 hours a day, every single day of the year.

Upon calling 988, a person will hear a brief recorded message letting them know they've contacted the right place. Then, they'll be able to choose options regarding age, language preference and whether they are Indigenous or not. Afterwards, the caller can provide as much or as little identifying information as they desire.

CAMH notes while 988 is focused on preventing suicide, no one who reaches out to the service will be turned away.

"If you're feeling hopeless, but you're not sure if 988 can help, please reach out," Crawford says. "If you're not sure if you're having suicidal thoughts, or if what you're going through is related to suicide, please call or text 988, and a responder will be there to talk things through with you."

How does 988 differ from 911?

While 988 focuses on preventing suicide, 911 is meant to help if there's an emergency where you need police, firefighters or an ambulance.

However, Crawford indicates people should call 911 if they have already started to seriously harm themselves or have taken steps towards suicide.

The reason those numbers were chosen for the suicide crisis hotline is because they're the same numbers used in a system launched in the United States last year.

The CAMH says no one who reaches out to 988 will be turned away. (Photo via Getty Images)
CAMH says no one who reaches out to 988 will be turned away. (Photo via Getty Images)

Why is 988 necessary in Canada?

Annually, around 4,500 people across Canada die by suicide, according to Crawford. That's roughly 12 people per day. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death among Canadian youth and young adults, according to the PHAC.

"Suicide affects people of all ages and backgrounds, ... and for every life lost to suicide, many more lives are impacted," she explains.

People who are facing suicide may also be overwhelmed, making 988 a simple route to access help when necessary. Moreover, people who call 988 will usually be connected with responders within their community, helping create an access point close to home.

How does 988 compare to other similar systems released elsewhere?

Canada isn't the first country to implement a three-digit suicide prevention line. The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia all have also released helplines which can also be accessed by contacting 988.

Crawford adds suicide prevention lines have been successful internationally, and they're an evidence-based tool to prevent suicide.

"We have learned a lot from the U.S. about their experiences of launching 988, including about wait times, technology and best practices for promoting the service," Crawford shares.

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