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Suicide Hotlines: Is Canada ready to take mental health seriously?

By Anabel Selemon, September 16 2022

Recognizing the legitimacy of mental health concerns have come a long way in recent years and the de-stigmatization of psychological struggles allows for those silently suffering to speak openly and honestly about their difficulties — opening the door to receiving proper care and support, without fear of judgment. Many Canadian mental health advocates have pushed for Canada to adopt a three-digit suicide hotline just similarly created in the United States, coined the “gold standard” of suicide prevention techniques. Sheryl Boswell, the executive director of Youth Mental Health Canada, told the CBC, “We need to adopt best practices from other countries and go beyond that to do much better than what we’re doing […] Let’s hope it doesn’t take years to adopt 988 in Canada.”

Everyday in Canada, an average of 10 Canadians take their own life, those with the highest death rates being males who are serving federal sentences, survivors of suicide loss or attempt, and within many Indigenous communities. One of the most prominent stories in recent memory out of Canada was the suicide of 15 year old Canadian victim of cyberbullying, Amanda Todd, which made international headlines 10 years ago after her detailed accounts of the cyberbullying she suffered went viral. These statistics and stories illustrate the widespread and heartbreaking nature of mental health struggles and suicide across our nation.

“They didn’t tell anybody [how they felt] because they were fearful of how other people would respond and treat them — there was a lot of misunderstanding and the mistreated people could have been helped, said Rheeda Walker, Ph. D. clinical psychologist, researcher and professor at the University of Houston, in an interview with Refresh Mental Health. “One of the things that we know now is the earlier that someone gets help or intervention for whatever psychological disturbance they may be experiencing, the better their prognosis.”

Today, a number of suicide hotlines exist across the country. However, Todd Doherty, Conservative Member of Parliament for Cariboo-Prince George, B.C., who introduced the successful motion to establish a centralized hotline system back in 2020, makes the point that the services Canada currently provides are lackluster, as is the slow progress in centralizing these hotlines. 

“Despite receiving the support of grassroots and national mental health organizations, municipalities from across the country and the unanimous support of parliamentarians, this life-saving initiative remains unavailable to Canadians and its status continues to be unknown,” he said.  

Suicide hotlines have a demonstrated history of effective suicide prevention, particularly in the United States.  Their effectiveness can be explained for a number of different reasons. This includes not stigmatizing the suicidal thoughts of the caller, nor their actions, circumstances, or feelings, as well as operators having an arsenal of mental health resources at their disposal to provide the caller.  In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported that 12% of callers with suicidal thoughts stated that chatting on the Suicide hotline prevented them from causing self-harm.  Nearly half of callers sought emergency or mental health services at the referral of a counsellor, and 80% of callers reported that the hotline has played a role in preventing self-harm.  Simply being able to find solace in a non-judgemental conversation and unpack one’s feelings can be life-changing, especially for those who do not already have trusted, understanding voices in their life.  

Alberta Health Services has conglomerated many different mental health hotlines, including “Kids Help Phone”, and “Talk Suicide Canada”, however, this fractures mental health assistance in the province- whereas a simple 3 digit phone number connecting to a central hub of support systems specifically for mental health concerns could make it easier to access mental health support- just simply by ease of a simple memorized phone number.  Alberta Health Services does have “211: Alberta” where mental health support could be accessed, but the number is intended for identifying many community services, it is not specific to mental health.

Implementing a 3 digit suicide hotline in Canada would require the country to take serious steps towards addressing mental health concerns — we ought to take a suicidal thought just as serious as a broken bone. 

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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