Canadians will next year get a mental-health assistance line similar to the 911 service that exists for emergencies.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission confirmed Thursday a new 988 line will be created for people to call and get instant mental-health help. However, as the number’s imminent arrival was announced, advocates say they’re worried about who will be answering the phone.

The CRTC said it will adopt 988 as the number to phone or text for those who need immediate mental-health aid or suicide-prevention intervention across the country. It’s easier to remember that number rather than having to memorize or find a 10-digit number for existing mental-health lines, reasons the commission.

According to a CRTC fact sheet, the years 2017 through 2019 Canada saw about 4,500 deaths by suicide annually. Some groups are represented more prevalently, such as men, Indigenous people and LGBTQ2 community members.

The commission said the number will help remove barriers to access for those with mental-health needs regardless of their geographic location or socioeconomic status.

Still, Margaret Eaton, the national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, says there are worries about whether the resources for such a system are in place.

“Our concern is to ensure that the government is not just announcing the number, but also ensuring that there are enough resources to pick up the phone 24/7,” Eaton said.

“So often these phone lines are manned by volunteers. The volunteers do a great job, but it’s really hard to get a volunteer to be picking up the phone at 2 a.m.”

Canada’s mental-health resources are already lacking and the volume of calls coming to 988 could greatly increase as people become more aware of it, she said, adding she trusts governments are working to address the shortfall.

In a country where people either can’t afford mental-health care or are stuck in long waits to access it, government needs to address the overall demand, Eaton said.

The United States launched a 988 line in July, but Eaton points out the number came with an extra funding to back up the service. The American government kicked in $280 million (U.S.) to help states create mental-health crisis teams able to conduct home visits, among other initiatives.

“The demand is great and the struggle to find service is shown in the waiting lists,” Eaton said.

The CMHA has been advocating for universal mental-health care in Canada and is planning a new campaign this fall, she said. Eaton added that every year 1.6 million Canadians have an untreated mental illness and 20 per cent of Canadians experience a mental-health challenge, but finding help is a struggle.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said in a release it has been working to help improve access to “immediate suicide prevention” resources. The new three-digit number is part of the effort.

The number will not be operational until November 2023, but some parts of the country will need to make changes to their telephone systems to accommodate the new line.

Currently some places, including Newfoundland and Labrador, Northern Ontario and areas around Yellowknife, still use seven-digit dialing, not 10. CRTC spokesperson Patricia Valladao said that since some phone numbers in those areas have 988 as their first three numbers, calling 988 would not work.

“Moving to 10-digit local calling is complex and requires telecommunications services providers to make modifications to their networks, which may include replacing equipment,” she wrote in an emailing explaining the issues.

The CRTC is requiring telephone systems in areas without 10-digit dialing to make changes to enable it by next June.

In the meantime, the CRTC said, those experiencing mental-health crises can call Talk Suicide Canada by dialing 1-833-456-4566.

As part of the preparation for introducing the 988 service, PHAC said the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) will be co-ordinating the service’s rollout, including collaborations with mental-health groups and other organizations in Canada.

The CAMH previously co-ordinated the creation of a current telephone suicide prevention service, Talk Suicide Canada.

With files from the Associated Press

Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports