Minister admits it's taking Ottawa 'a long time' to set up suicide hotline

The federal minister responsible for mental health policy acknowledges it's taking her government “a long time” to set up a new national 3-digit suicide prevention hotline.

Urban Canadians may get access first because of technology issues, says Carolyn Bennett

Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett says urban Canadians may get access to a planned new nationwide suicide hotline before rural Canadians. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The federal minister responsible for mental health policy acknowledges it's taking her government "a long time" to set up a new national 3-digit suicide prevention hotline.

Carolyn Bennett, the minister for mental health and addictions, refused to say Monday whether the project might take months or even years longer.

She did say the project could be made available to urban Canadians first because of technological hurdles in rural areas.

Her comments came 500 days after members of Parliament unanimously agreed the government should act immediately to set up the 3-digit service.

"Five hundred days is a long time," said Bennett, "but even getting 911 into rural Canada, this was very difficult. Canada is a very diverse country in terms of its communication technology and infrastructure."

Todd Doherty, the Conservative MP who put the motion to set up the hotline to the House of Commons, called the delay "an insult" to those struggling with mental health.

"Five hundred days of delay is unreasonable, unnecessary and unacceptable," he said in a media statement Monday.

The government, Doherty and mental health professionals all agree that a 3-digit suicide prevention hotline could help those in crisis access existing mental health services.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) launched consultations on the project in June of last year. The period to offer comments was extended until mid-March of this year after some in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community asked to make submissions in sign language.

Ottawa waiting on CRTC, says Bennett

In a statement to CBC News, the CRTC said it's now analyzing the submissions and that it does not provide timelines for its decisions.

"I think we'll wait for the CRTC assessment of this in terms of what is possible and effective," Bennett told a news conference Monday at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. There she announced that CAMH and 13 distress centres across the country are getting more than $3.7 million in new funding — part of a $50 million envelope announced in the 2020 Fall Economic Statement.

Bennett said the project's timeline depends in part on what the CRTC concludes.

"They may well tell us that we'll be able to do urban earlier, which is what happened with 911, but we'll wait and see what their assessment is," she said.

Conservative MP Todd Doherty has been the driving force in the Commons behind the suicide hotline project. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bennett suggested other countries are also struggling to get suicide hotlines up and running in a timely fashion.

The United States is setting up a 3-digit "National Suicide Prevention Lifeline" that is supposed to be operational in June. But concerns have emerged about that timeline. A New York Times report suggested the hotline might not have enough staff to meet the demand, which could lead to millions of distraught Americans hanging up without getting any help.

While various reports suggest an increase in the number of calls to distress centres in Canada during the pandemic, other data suggest the suicide rate has declined.

One report concluded that Canada's suicide death rate has decreased — from 10.82 deaths per 100,000 people in the period right before the pandemic to 7.34 per 100,000 from March 2020 to February 2021.

Another analysis suggested there was no meaningful change in the frequency of suicidal thoughts among Canadian adults between 2019 and 2020.

Bennett, Doherty and others say they still believe the 3-digit hotline is needed.

"We too see it as a really important, essential service," said Bennett.

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

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