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‘It would change lives’: Advocate calls for 988 to be used as simplified crisis hotline

TORONTO — An Ontario woman has launched a campaign designed to simplify the mental health hotline in order to more effectively help those in crisis.

Kathleen Finlay, the founder of a sexual trauma advocacy organization known as the Zer0Now Campaign, believes Canada should follow the U.S. and simplify Canada’s National Suicide Hotline to just three digits: 988.

“People are in such distress you really can’t put any barriers in front of them or they are not going to get the help that they want,” she told CTV News. “It would change lives and we really can’t afford to lose more people to suicide.”

Canada’s current national hotline was established in 2017 to provide around-the-clock mental health support over the phone, though text message or online chat to any Canadians who might need it. The problem, Finlay argues, is the number those in crises need to dial:  1 (833) 456-4566.

Finlay said that while the program is a good start, it can be tough to remember the 11-digit number in times of crisis.

“The hotline is great. It’s a great resource. The trouble is accessing it,” she said. “It’s so difficult for people to find the number and then it is an 11-digit number, so it takes quite a while to punch it into your phone.”

Finlay also argues that simplifying the number would also take some of the stigma away from calling the hotline.

“Nobody gets upset about having to call 911,” she said. “They don’t think there’s any stigma attached with that. 988 would be, according to the experts, the same kind of thing. It might just get people talking more.”

In the United States, 988 is well on its way to becoming a reality.

In December, U.S. Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted in favour of designating the number to their national hotline. Under the proposal, U.S. telephone carriers would be required to implement 988 as a national suicide hotline within 18 months.

“We believe that this three-digit number dedicated for this purpose will help ease access to crisis services,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said during a meeting back in December. “It will reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions, and ultimately it will save lives.”

In Canada, the idea also has support from several mental health advocates and crisis organizations.

“When you are suicidal, one of the last things that you can do is think very clearly about all the things in your memory,” said Mark Henick, a mental health advocate who once attempted suicide. “I think those three digits will save lives just because it is so much easier.”

Crisis Services Canada, the organization that runs the current hotline, is also in favour of the simplified number.

“It needs political will,” said CSC CEO Stephanie MacKendrick. “The telecom industry and the organizations responsible for allocating numbers have to be in favour of it.”

Canada’s telecom companies were a big part of bringing 911 to communities across the country when it was first adopted in the 1970s.

Bell Canada said in a statement that it would welcome discussions about bringing 988 to Canada. 

“Bell Let’s Talk has supported individual crisis centres in communities across Canada, and we would be happy to discuss a 988 number initiative with the CRTC and others in the industry,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which represents Rogers, Telus and Bell and several other telecommunications companies in Canada, said 988 is “not something we have enough information on to provide a comment at this time” and forwarded CTVNews.ca to a free crisis texting service it supports called CONNECT.

Under the program, people who text CONNECT to 686868 can chat with a trained crisis responder at any time of the day. The conversations are kept confidential and don’t need a data plan, internet access or a special app to use.

Finlay said she has yet to receive support from Ottawa. 

“I have contacted MPs, I have contacted senators, I have not had a reply from anyone,” she said.  “It is disheartening because it is such a good idea. I really believe — and the experts tell us — that it can make such a difference.” 

Under the procedures of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), anyone can request for the agency to examine the use of an abbreviated number for a specific purpose.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 11 Canadians die by suicide each day, making it the ninth leading cause of death among youth and those aged 15 to 34.

With files from CTVNews.ca Writer Cillian O’Brien

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