Canada’s only nationwide text message and chat helpline for suicide prevention has been forced to suspend its service because it’s run out of money.
After more than six months of operation, in which it received more than 7,900 incoming contacts through online chat or SMS, the Canada Suicide Prevention Service operated by Crisis Services Canada ceased those services July 7. A national toll-free number remains in operation, and regional text and chat services are still online in some areas across the country.
Despite only doing a soft launch of the new service on Nov. 27, 2017, Crisis Services Canada was surprised by the demand for its service. Of more than 16,000 contacts, 62 per cent were served through chat or text. The service set Canada apart as the only country offering both text and chat as a nationwide suicide prevention service and as a result is nominated for ITWC‘s Digital Transformation Awards this year. In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers the online Lifeline Chat connecting multiple distress centres.
“We had a very ambitious timeline for funding and we don’t have the funding we need for the services to be fully operational,” says Alison Caird, the president of the board of Crisis Services Canada and the executive director of the Toronto Distress Centre. “As a result, we’ve had to suspend the chat and text portion of the service, which is really heartbreaking.”
While distress centres are available to help Canadians facing mental health emergencies in many communities (but not all), the goal of the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service is to provide one point of contact for all Canadians on phone, web chat, and text message. Those seeking help are routed to the nearest geographical centre based on availability. So if someone in Toronto wants to chat, but all the distress response workers in Toronto are already busy, someone in Ottawa might step in and help.
The service claims that it’s disabled 699 suicide plans and initiated another 159 active rescues in which emergency services were called. The demographic most often reached by the text and chat services were middle-aged men.
“They don’t typically reach out,” Caird says. “So we’ve broken the stigma with that age group and gender. That’s amazing, but we need to find funding.”
Fundraising goal is $25 million
The service’s existing funding includes a 2016 commitment for $2 million over five years. The Mental Health Commission of Canada provided another $250,000 in 2016. But to reach its goal of providing a nationwide service, the service estimates it requires $5 million in funding this year, and projects it would scale up to 150,000 incoming contacts by 2023, costing about $10 million.
Crisis Services Canada has contracted Toronto-based Funding Matters Inc. to pursue fundraising options. One potential for a consistent and reliable revenue stream is to find other organizations that want a national helpline and could pay a fee to layer their services on top of the technology infrastructure created by Crisis Services Canada. In addition, the group is reaching out to other federal and provincial government agencies to seek funding. It’s also open to corporate donations and will take individual donations, but can’t provide tax receipts since it’s not a registered charity. Though pursuing status as a charity from the Canada Revenue Agency is also being looked at, Caird says.
The goal is to raise $25 million over a five year period to support technology and operations costs. If an additional $15 million is raised over that period, an awareness campaign of the hotline will be conducted, mostly through digital channels.
The operational costs will go towards volunteer coordinators and trained responders to staff distress centres. Crisis Services Canada wants to onboard one new distress centre each quarter to the national service, reaching 20 at the end of five years.
As society continues to shift away from phone calls to text-based communication, it’s more important than ever to support a national service that includes web chat and SMS, says Mara Grunau, the executive director of the Calgary-based Centre for Suicide Prevention, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. She considers the Canada Suicide Prevention Service to be very important.
“We’re trying to lower the barrier. When people are in crisis and they need help now, they shouldn’t have to navigate a complex system and find the right regional whatever,” she says. “If we’re serious about meeting people where they’re at and helping them in the moment, we need to make this available.”
The immeasurable costs of suicide
So where can the service look for $25 million in funding?
“I don’t know,” Grunau says. “It’s a complex federated healthcare system.”
Instead, she points to the costs of suicide. Beyond the immeasurable cost of human life, its estimated that each suicide costs society about $1 million, she says.
Crisis Services Canada points to costs associated with emergency services. Each police intervention resulting from suicide costs more than $540,000. Each time an emergency room is used, it costs more than $330,000.
In 2016 there were 4,254 suicide deaths in Canada. Crisis Services Canada estimates that on average, one suicide negatively affects 115 people.
“We can prevent these deaths easily, with the right intervention,” Caird says.
The technology behind Canada Suicide Prevention Service’s routing capabilities is Rogers Virtual Contact Centre, a cloud-based call centre infrastructure service. SMS aggregator Impact Mobile routes in all the SMS messages. The web chat is facilitated by iCarol, a helpline management software designed specifically for non-profits.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call 1-833-456-4566, toll free 24 hours a day. Text and chat information is provided on the Canada Suicide Prevention Service web site www.crisisservicescanada.ca for chat and text services provided in local areas while Crisis Services engages additional capacity.