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Ottawa passes motion to create three-digit suicide prevention hotline

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Summary

Unlike 911, there is no simple, easy-to-remember number to call for emotional or mental health support


The House of Commons voted unanimously to move forward with creating a three-digit, national crisis line


In the U.S. work on a three-digit number is ongoing, 988 will be the number to call nation-wide by 2022


OTTAWA (NEWS 1130) — Canada is one step closer to getting a three-digit, national suicide prevention hotline after a unanimous vote in the House of Commons Friday.

Unlike 911, there is no simple, easy-to-remember number to call for emotional or mental health support. Crisis lines across the country have different 10-digit numbers, and finding the number for a local crisis centre takes time. Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons Friday, B.C. MP Todd Doherty stressed seconds can make a difference when someone is in crisis.

“When minutes count, help should only be three digits away,” he said.

Doherty lost a close friend to suicide nearly four decades ago.

“Like me, many of our colleagues have experienced the pain, loss guilt, and anger of suicide,” he said.

“I’ve heard from those who are suffering silently. Their stories are heartbreaking but we must do better than give them hope, we could leave a legacy of action by breaking the stigma associated with mental illness and mental injury, and eliminating unnecessary barriers for Canadians who choose to seek help.”

Emphasizing the toll the pandemic has taken on Canadians’ mental health, Doherty said now is the time to start the process of establishing a single, Canada-wide number.

“2020 has been a challenging year, lives and livelihoods have been lost, we’ve begun to see the devastating impacts that COVID has had through isolation on the mental health of Canadians,” he said.

“I hope that as leaders and parliamentarians, our final act in our most challenging year is one of action.”

Not a single member of parliament voted in opposition.

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Data from October showed the suicide rate in British Columbia has dropped when compared to 2019. However, like the rest of the country, the number of calls to crisis lines has been steadily rising. 

In a recent report, the Mental Health Commission of Canada noted a sharp increase in calls to national distress lines. The Kids Help Phone has seen a 170 per cent increase in calls to their phone line, and a 114 per cent increase in texts. The Canada Suicide Prevention Service reports about 50 per cent more requests for help than were received in 2019. They are also seeing a higher percentage of calls that require immediate, emergency intervention.

A June survey conducted by and the Canadian Mental Health Association UBC found one in 20 Canadians had recently experienced suicidal thought or feelings thoughts as a result of the pandemic. Indigenous people, people with pre-existing mental health problems, disabilities, and low incomes reported suicidal thoughts more frequently.

A petition to the House of Commons notes diverting calls from 911 could help prevent police from attending mental health emergencies.

“911 receives thousands of calls every day for mental health emergencies even though they are not the most equipped to handle a mental health crisis,” it reads.

“Every year, several individuals are murdered or injured after police are called for a mental health crisis, this risk is especially high for those who are [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour]; and my hope is this new number will be more widely known and memorized and we can help redirect mental health help towards mental health professionals and away from police.”

In the U.S. work on a three-digit number is ongoing. The Federal Communications Commission designated 988 as the number for a notion-wide hotline in July, and by 2022 all calls to that number will be routed to The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Suicide-prevention experts have said that the three-digit number will be a breakthrough that helps people in crisis. One aspect of designating a three-digit number for the hotline, just like 911 for emergencies, is that it removes stigma for seeking help in a mental health emergency.

For now, anyone who needs help can find it 24 hours a day through B.C.’s crisis lines. A full list is available at crisislines.bc.ca. Online help and immediate crisis support can be accessed nation-wide at Wellness Together Canada.