The Government of Canada has announced the launch of 9-8-8, a new three-digit suicide crisis helpline. 

The helpline is now available to call or text 24/7 in French or English for those in urgent need.

The Government of Canada has provided $156 million to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) over three years to implement and operate 9-8-8. Experienced partners and trained responders are standing by, ready to answer calls and texts to 9-8-8.

“Responders will provide support and compassion without judgment. They are here to help callers and texters explore ways to keep themselves safe when things are overwhelming,” wrote the Government of Canada in its news release.

The launch of the hotline comes after a Conservative motion three years ago by MP Todd Doherty, who lost his best friend to suicide.

“Every day in Canada there are approximately twelve people who die by suicide,” Doherty said. “Often, they have nowhere to turn, no one to talk to and no way of getting help. With the implementation of 9-8-8, we have one more tool in the toolbox to make sure people have access to trained professionals.”

The new three-digit line replaces the 10-digital national number, Talk Suicide, which had been in place for several years. Talk Suicide Canada was about a quarter of the size of 9-8-8 in terms of coverage across the country. 

The United States transferred its previous 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to a three-digit phone number in July 2022. Its helpline is also 9-8-8.

“9-8-8 is easy to remember and will provide life-saving services to those who need it most. Anytime and anywhere, 9-8-8 is always available to help,” said Health Minister Mark Holland.

This nationwide initiative involves a network of local and national partners. So far, a network of 39 partners across Canada will be offering support. Additionally, a team of trained responders can be called on when more capacity is needed, and a local responder is unavailable.

The helpline is operated in collaboration with national partners, like Kids Help Phone, along with existing provincial, territorial, and community-based organizations to operate the line. Some partners have hired more staff and volunteers. The Kids Help Phone will continue to provide dedicated service through 9-8-8 to youth. Hope for Wellness can support callers in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut.

When someone calls, the responders ask whether the caller is contemplating self-harm or suicide.

“Once that elephant in the room has been addressed, it makes it easier to kind of listen to someone’s story and see how they got to where they are and how they’re feeling,” Nausheen Ali told CBC.

Ali coordinates 9-8-8 training for South Asian Canadian Health and Social Services in Brampton. 

Following that first question, responders engage in an empathetic dialogue. They discuss whether there’s a plan, mental health concerns, substance use, and the caller’s support and coping strategies.

Callers have complete discretion over the extent of personal information they disclose to responders, who are both paid and volunteer. 

When someone first calls, they will be greeted by a notification and asked what language they wish to use. Callers under 18 will be offered specialized support. 

Dr. Allison Crawford, Chief Medical Officer for 9-8-8, said that in most cases, emergency services will not be contacted. However, if there’s an immediate or impending danger of self-harm or harm to others, 911 will be contacted. The 9-8-8 responder will stay on the phone with the caller, providing ongoing support until help arrives.

Approximately 12 people commit suicide across Canada per day, an average of 4,500 per year. For every death by suicide, a minimum of seven to 10 people either attempted suicide or grieved the loss of someone who died by suicide.

CAMH will provide data to the Public Health Agency of Canada on the number of calls received, response times, and instances of call abandonment — where callers disconnect either during the call or before connecting with a responder. The data provided will contain insights regarding user satisfaction while ensuring personal data remains confidential.

If trends are similar to those in the U.S., demand may be high directly after the launch, leading to extended wait times for some callers. Callers waiting to be heard will hear a message urging them to stay on the line.