Government’s suicide prevention helpline under prepares for increased care demand, CMHA says

The Canadian Mental Health Association says it is concerned for underfunded community-based mental health services that could face an influx of patients with little resources to support them once Canada’s new 988 hotline is up and running.

According to Government of Canada, about 4,500 people in Canada die by suicide every year.

To address this mental health crisis, on Monday the Canadian government announced a three-year investment plan of $156 million into a national three-digit suicide prevention and emotional distress helpline – 988 – to better support Canadians in need.

And while CMHA has been looking forward to the helpline, set to launch on Nov 30, Sarah Kennell, its national director of public policy, says funding for community-based supports remains uncertain.

“The question remains, though, is the mental health and substance use health sector adequately equipped to respond to those crisis situations that emerge through the calls? We’re not sure what the answer to that is yet,” Kennell told over the phone.

A portion of the investment, $21.4 million, will be donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and one of the world’s leading research centres. These funds will be distributed to existing distress centres to bolster their capacity, Kennell said.

“We’re taking a step back and asking if the funding is really sufficient,” she said. “Is this funding enough to ensure that not only are those lines adequately resourced to ensure they pick up the phone when it rings in those local communities, but then do those community-based mental health organizations have the resources to effectively and adequately refer folks who need additional referrals and support to other services and communities?”

The government anticipates a four- to six-fold increase in crisis calls when the 988 number launches this fall. While waitlists for mental health services are already lengthy—the longest wait is now up to two-and-a-half years—CMHA says it could get longer.

While Kennell isn’t certain of what things will look like once the helpline is implemented, she says it’s safe to say there will be increased demand.

“In the absence of real, meaningful investment in community-based resources, folks have limited options in terms of where to go for care. So they’re relying on family physicians, which may or may not have emergency departments, which are increasingly under strain and not the best place to get crisis care when you’re in a mental health crisis,” she said.

While she says that about 75 per cent of calls can be resolved over the phone, support is still needed for the remainder of the people for whom the phone call isn’t enough.

CMHA is a Canadian non-profit mental health organization that focuses on resources, programs and advocacy and, according to Kennell, a community-based approach involves responding to crises holistically, through addressing factors such as housing, food insecurity, and employment—which may contribute to a mental health crisis.

The Public Health Agency of Canada was receptive to speaking with CMHA and the organization is putting forward a budget submission that includes a dedicated committee based crisis response fund, according to Kennell.

“We’re hoping that comes through,” she said reached out to PHAC for comment but has yet to hear back.


If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)

Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

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