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B.C. crisis support workers welcome new 988 suicide helpline

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Canadians have a new mental-health support system as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health launches 988, a suicide crisis helpline.

The three-digit number for suicide prevention launched Thursday.

“Suicide can be a tragic outcome when people feel disconnected. We know that. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds,” says the helpline’s chief medical officer and CAMH psychiatrist Dr. Allison Crawford.

“Wherever people feel alone, we need to establish connection and we know that suicide prevention helplines can do just that.”

The helpline is funded by the government of Canada. There are 39 partners taking calls and texts 24 hours a day across the country, in English and French.

“Everyone who answers the call or text is trained in suicide prevention with a focus on providing trauma-informed and culturally appropriate care,” says federal mental health and addictions minister Ya’ara Saks.

The Vancouver Island Crisis Society in Nanaimo is one of those trained partners.

“What 988 does is sometimes people can’t remember a 10-digit number. Or what number should I call? So I think it gives easier access for people who are struggling,” says VICS executive director Elizabeth Newcombe. “It’s trying to increase capacity so no one goes unserviced.”

VICS has been doing the work for years and anticipates higher call volumes as people explore the new helpline. A former call taker, who’s now in a supervisory position with the organization, says the first priority on a call with a person is to establish a connection and he says most end well.

“Most calls end with a short-term plan created. That can be as something as small as they’re going take a walk and reflect on what they just talked about. Or it can be something bigger like they’re now going to call the doctor and make an appointment there,” says VICS employee Trystan Jackson.

VICS and CAMH say the need for call responders at distress centres to require assistance through 911 on a call is rare.

Typically when someone reports to 911 saying they are having thoughts of suicide, E-Comm dispatchers transfer the call to local police for immediate response. A spokesperson for E-Comm says those policies won’t change and welcomes the addition of the Suicide Crisis Helpline, calling it an “important” resource.

The Victoria Police Department also welcomes the helpline.

“It’s difficult to predict the impact this will have on mental health calls to VicPD,” says Const. Terri Healy.

At the unveiling of 988 in Toronto Thursday morning, the federal health minister said suicide is the leading cause of premature death in Canada. Approximately 4,500 Canadians die by suicide every year or 12 people per day.

“Each phone call in the 988 is not just answering the call of the person in crisis but the world of families and communities around them who we are also supporting in that moment of need,” says Saks.

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