Dec. 18, 2023

New suicide hotline, 9-8-8, launches in Canada with 24/7 call and text services

Service provides new level of accessible support, say crisis centre staff and UCalgary stigma researcher
High angle shot of a group of hotline agents working in an office
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Many of us may think nothing of the fact that we have the numbers 9-1-1 committed to memory. But it’s there, ready for whenever we may need to use it. Mental health professionals across the country are hoping that a new number, 9-8-8, will trigger a similarly automatic response for those who need it most: individuals having thoughts of suicide. 

Canada’s new national 9-8-8 suicide crisis helpline went live on Nov. 30, offering 24/7 call and text support; people who are concerned about someone in their life can also call or text to receive resources and support.    

Every day, about 12 people in Canada die by suicide, and, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15-24. These stats underscore the critical need for accessible mental health support like 9-8-8, say organizers. 

The line also has the potential to improve emergency and crisis systems, so those experiencing mental distress are supported by health-focused first responders. In 2020, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) called for changes to crisis response: “Tragic outcomes can occur when people with mental illness experience a crisis in the community and are not able to get the care that they need.” 

CAMH leads and co-ordinates 9-8-8, while Distress Centre Calgary is one of its local partners. Before the implementation of 9-8-8, suicide-related calls to the Distress Centre had increased in recent years, says Distress Centre CEO Robyn Romano, BSW’14, MSW’17 

"It used to be one out of 10 contacts, now it’s one of four total contacts. For chat and text, its one of two,” she says. 

Suicide is a public health issue, yet we’ve never received funding and commitment like this,” she says, referring to the $156 million the Government of Canada has committed to the project. “It shows how necessary this work is.”  

‘When someone calls, we know they want help 

As a UCalgary alum, a Distress Centre crisis line volunteer for three years, and now a trained 9-8-8 responder, Aaron So, BSc’23, has framed his approach to answering calls with the awareness and understanding that people want help in some capacity when they reach out.  

Just answering a call, So says, "already tells me that they want help, even if they may or may not seem like they’re ready or even want it.” 

Suicide is an uncomfortable topic for many individuals, he adds: Suicide is still taboo for some people, and that can be internal, too. People who may have suicide ideation may not want to talk about it, or even know how to verbalize it, either. 

As for what to expect during a 9-8-8 call, explains Romano, responders listen to callers:

When someone contacts 9-8-8, they’ll be connected with a highly trained responder who will listen with compassion, give them space to talk, explore ways to keep them safe in the moment and help them find a path forward.” 

A game-changer for accessibility in many forms 

Accessibility is a key aspect for a service as vital as 9-8-8, says Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, Campus Mental Health Strategy director and stigma researcher. “An easily accessible resource like 9-8-8 can do so much to reduce barriers to access and increase the likelihood someone will receive the help they need,” he says.

Romano says that, while Canada has had a 10-digit suicide hotline for years, the launch of 9-8-8 is a potential game-changer, because of the ease of access it affords. “To have a three-digit line is exciting. It’s easy to remember, (which) is important when someone is experiencing a crisis," she says. "It’s available nationwide, but staffed regionally, so responders are well-versed in local supports for individualized needs.” 

Less silos and fewer access points are important, says Romano, because, like 9-1-1, the resource helps save lives.  

Students and young adults an at-risk group 

So thinks the line will help any Canadian, including his recent peer group and population of research: post-secondary students. "School is so stressful and there's so much pressure on students ... internal and external pressures, pressures like future careers and grades, family and life and adulting stuff … unanticipated things, too. There's a lot of things that can happen for students,” says So. 

“Sometimes people aren't comfortable talking to their peers, friends or family, teachers or professors, because they’re worried about potential consequences. For students to be able to access the support, feel less shame and less stigma, and function better at university...that is supportive.” 

Szeto concurs, saying that despite significant efforts over the past decade to reduce mental illness stigma, the topic of suicide is still highly stigmatized.

“The more we can highlight resources and supports like 9-8-8 and the more we get the topic of suicide into the general discourse, the more we can create a supportive environment for those experiencing suicide thoughts and behaviours not to feel shame for seeking help,” he says. 

Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide is worthy of support 

Conversations with loved ones or trusted community around us, self-care strategies, enacting safety plans ... sometimes, the measures for staying safe or easing distressing thoughts aren’t available. That’s where 9-8-8 can be useful.  

“For people needing that support, who maybe don’t have someone they feel comfortable talking to or need more immediate support ... to know there is a line dedicated to support you or someone you know experiencing thoughts of suicide is important,” says So. 

I think sometimes we forget, lose focus, get scared, and feel so isolated and on our own, and think we're the only person that could ever experience anything like this and no one would understand. I think it's important for people to remember that they're not alone. 

“9-8-8 exists. You may never use it, you may use it, you may consider using it. Just knowing it exists, …I hope that's a game-changer for people who might be struggling and are looking for support.”  

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviours or a mental health crisis, know that you are not alone and there are many supports and caring individuals available to assist you. If your safety or someone else’s is at risk, call 911 for emergency services. If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call or text 9-8-8. Find more supports for your mental health and well-being here. 

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. 

Developed in collaboration with the Campus Mental Health Strategy, in community partnership with Calgary’s Centre for Suicide Prevention, and the Distress Centre, UCalgary’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework works to prevent all student suicides. Learn about how we are working towards zero suicides here and browse Reach Out prevention trainings here. 

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