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Canada launches long-awaited suicide crisis hotline


Starting Thursday, you can call or text 9-8-8 and connect with Canada's new suicide crisis helpline and speak or text with a registered mental health support worker.

The announcement has been welcomed news for the most part, but some mental health advocates and experts argue more proactive supports are needed.

Halifax firefighter Michael Sears knows the pain suicide can have on family and friends.

"Unfortunately we've lost three members to suicide in the past five years," said Sears.

The 20-year veteran of the Halifax Fire Department lost his close friend and fellow firefighter Kyle Currie to suicide in 2018; he was just 34 at the time.

It prompted Sears to create "Fight4Life,” a charity that helps active and retired Halifax firefighters access mental health assistance.

"Our team has been able to raise about $200,000 and we've put about $160,000 back into programming and supports for our members," said Sears, who added the funds are used for proactive mental health education and reactive support "which isn't otherwise covered."

The 988 suicide crisis hotline is a project that has been years in the making and will connect Canadians in distress with a trained crisis responder when they need it.

"Twelve people die by suicide each and every day in this country, and that is 12 too many, and it is 12 too many families with broken hearts and 12 too many communities who grieve every day," said Ya'ara Saks, the federal minister of mental health and addictions.

From coast-to-coast, Canadians can call or text 988 when in crisis, or when they know someone is in a crisis, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, free of charge.

Sears welcomes the announcement but says there's still a critical gap that needs to be addressed before the mental crisis reveals itself.

"Providing another resource is a great idea; personally, I'd like to see an investment in the front end so that my members and members in the emergency services community don't get to that point where they need to use that number," said Sears.

Dalhousie professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Simon Sherry says the hotline may help but hasn't seen evidence showing the phone service prevents suicide.

"Perhaps these types of lines can help calm people down, but what we lack is any evidence suggesting that this type of intervention will actually reduce rates of death by suicide," said Sherry, who says resources should be directed to suicide prevention methods that are proven.

"You take away guns from people who are suicidal, you put up barriers on bridges that people are known to jump off, and you dispense drugs more safely, making overdose more difficult," said Sherry.

While the announcement has been welcomed by many and is well-intentioned said Sherry, "scarce resources" he emphasized, should be directed to means of suicide prevention that have been shown to work.

"For some time, Canada has needed an evidence-based, coordinated suicide prevention strategy, but I don't think we can consider this crisis line a meaningful part of that," said Sherry.

Dr. Allison Crawford, the chief medical officer for 988 and leading psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says crisis lines work.

"As a clinician, I’ve seen firsthand how even one conversation can begin a dialogue that allows someone to re-engage with their strengths and to hope," said Crawford. "That sense of connection and belonging can be transformative." 



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