Canada launched a new suicide prevention helpline this week and it bears examining why such a resource has become so important.
With the new 988 number, a trained responder can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week – no matter where people live in the country.
On the surface, the recognition that a resource like this is needed takes courage and is a step in a positive direction toward a more open and honest discussion about suicide in our society.
“No one will be turned away. Anyone who reaches out to 988 will receive the support that they need,” said Dr. Allison Crawford, chief medical officer for the helpline and a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“It’s explicitly a suicide prevention service and responders are trained in suicide prevention. But we also understand that people who are struggling with their mental health may not know that they have suicidal ideation,” she said in an interview.
According to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, 12 people die by suicide in the country every day and 4,500 lives are lost every year. The data indicates that more than 200 people attempt suicide in Canada every day.
The numbers are certainly alarming and tragic. For me anyway, when I hear personal stories of people impacted by suicide, it becomes even more saddening.
Just this week we learned of an individual in Sylvan Lake who had been through bullying so bad that they considered taking their own life.
“I have hurt myself. I did have a screenshot of the students’ help phone number and the suicide helpline number when I was having those thoughts but I never phoned them,” Jace Olsen told the Sylvan Lake News.
“Each time I have been in counselling I never said I had those thoughts either because I was scared they were going to tell my mom. So I would lie about it just because I was nervous,” she added.
In Prince George, B.C., a 12-year-old died by suicide after falling prey to online sextortion.
“They’re just, they’re not built for problems like this. They’re not built for adult problems in a kid’s world,” Carson Cleland’s father, Ryan Cleland, told CKPG, a television station in Prince George, B.C.
We may never know if Canada’s new suicide prevention helpline would have helped in Carson’s case.
What we do know is that by his family speaking out, they may be able to help another child in distress or encourage a parent to have a conversation about online activity, the dangers and how it can impact a youth well beyond their childhood.
I also heard a story on a recent podcast and it prompted me to consider writing this column even before the three developments mentioned above.
Andy Salkind was considering taking his own life and had gone through the steps as to how he was going to do it. On that fateful day, minutes before Salkind was going to take his own life, he received an innocuous text from a friend, with one simple word.
It was in that moment, as minor and minute as it might seem, Salkind had a lightbulb moment. He responded to the text, went to the pub with his friend and felt an expected joy and lift that he didn’t anticipate.
Salkind now advocates to “just send the text.” He isn’t intending to minimize suicide or depression but he considered the moment he experienced as a calling in a sense.
He says sometimes people just need to know others are thinking of them. In essence, the advice is simple — yet, in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it is easy to lose track of our friends. And if you think too hard about what you are going to say, how you are going to phrase the text or what you might do if the person doesn’t respond, it gets easier to just say nothing at all. It’s anxiety-induced just to think about it sometimes.
From a psychological standpoint, a lot of that has to do with our inability to comprehend just how much joy that text will bring to the other person. Maybe they’ll feel pressure to respond, they’ll read too much into it or it’ll cause them to worry about us, so again, we rationalize more reasons not to hit send.
I had been struggling with this exact problem recently. Prompted by the podcast I scrolled through my phone and found an old friend who I hadn’t heard from in a little while. A moment during the week had reminded me of him and I didn’t send the text at the time.
When I did eventually send the text, I got a quick message back, with a photo of my friend and his girlfriend and their smiling dog, whom they had just rescued. I’ll still never know whether he needed that text in that moment or the conversation that followed, but I know that I was feeling down about losing contact with some friends and it lifted me up at the time.
This is by no means a safeguard to suicide. It’s a tool in our toolbox to try and be better citizens for our friends and family who might be struggling.
While my experience worked out and was relatively innocent, I think it still goes to show there is value in reaching out to people, just to check in, regardless of how the conversation goes.
Especially when it comes to suicide, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the more open the dialogue becomes, the better we will get at finding solutions to help those in need.
Canada has taken a great step with this new hotline and we have to remain hopeful that it will be a beacon of hope for the future.
Other resources include Canada Suicide Prevention Service at Toll free: 1-833-456-4566. You can also text 45645 or visit the online chat service at crisisservicescanada.ca. AHS has a Mental Health Help Line 1-877-303-2642. You can also contact the Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868.
Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor for Black Press Media.