9-8-8 services make it easier to access mental health assistance

Photo Credit: Brett Jordan, Unsplash

Avaya, through its ongoing work with the CRTC Emergency Services Working group, has recommended that Multi-line telephone owner/operators, VARs, and service providers take proactive action to prepare for the introduction of 9-8-8 services in Canada (see: Avaya – 9-8-8 Primer and Implications for MLTS).

In recent years, there has been heightened awareness about mental health issues with an increase in available services to support those in need. As a result, there is now a range of mental health and suicide prevention operations across the country. However, navigating to these services in a time of need can be problematic if you haven’t previously used them or don’t know the 10-digit number to contact for help. 

The U.S. and Canada have taken steps to make it easier to access mental health crisis and suicide prevention services  by calling or texting 9-8-8. This service went live in the U.S. in July.  In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has directed that the service be available as of November 30, 2023

Operators and service providers of a multi-line business communication system should ensure that their systems and services are configured to allow users to reach the 9-8-8 service now for users in the U.S. and once it’s available in Canada later next year.  

Dial plans and routing for 9-8-8 should follow similar requirements and best practices prescribed for 9-1-1 such as the following: 

  • 9-8-8 should be reachable with or without any and all pre-existing dialing prefixes. For example, if users need to dial “9” for an outside line, mental health services should be reachable by dialing 9-8-8 or 9-9-8-8
  • Calls should be routed directly to the 9-8-8 service and not intercepted and transferred by an intermediary such as a security desk or operator
Allan Mendelsohn, principal consultant and Avaya Canada

Allan Mendelsohn, Public Safety and Healthcare Lead, Avaya Canada

In Canada, there may be interim challenges arising from  people who may call 9-8-8 before the service is available. This could occur due to greater awareness of the existing service available in the U.S. or as 9-8-8 is discussed within Canada. The CRTC has requested wireless carriers provide a bounce-back message to anyone who calls or texts 9-8-8 before the service is available.  Public Health Agency of Canada provided recommended wording for such a bounce-back message (see: CRTC 20220615 Letter). The CRTC did not do the same for wireline carriers because their systems lack the flexibility of their wireless counterparts. 

The CRTC did not offer direction for Multi-line telephone systems (MLTS). That said, the chart below offers five options for dealing with people in Canada who may call 9-8-8 prior to the services being available 

Provide bounce back message informing caller to call the 10-digit number Consistent with what wireless telephone service providers have been asked to do by the CRTC [see Jun 15 letter] Delay (i.e. hang up and call the 10-digit number)
Do nothing (until Nov 2023) Consistent with what wireline telephone service providers have been given permission to do by the CRTC [see Jun 3 letter] Most difficulty in reaching mental health services. Caller must figure out how to reach the service given that 9-8-8 has failed
Route to 10-digit mental health number Fastest way to get a person in search for assistance connected to the help they need May create the false impression that 9-8-8 is live and is accessible from anywhere in Canada
Provide bounce back message first, and then route the call to the 10-digit number Fast way to get a person in search for assistance connected to the help they need; educate 9-8-8 callers for the future
Route 9-8-8 calls to the carrier, and let their process for handling such calls before go-live prevail No need to implement interim solutions. Inherit the carrier’s interim treatment (if any) and automatically be ready for when the carrier goes live See cons above based on which option the carrier has chosen

Multi-line telephone systems should be configured to route calls to the 9-8-8 service. It should be supported with or without a dialing prefix by being routed directly to the service without going through an intermediary. The Emergency Services Working Group (ESWG) that makes recommendations to the CRTC has produced a 9-8-8 primer for MLTS owners and operators. Vendors, resellers, and service providers should be consulted to have dialing plans updated for 9-8-8 and to ensure that 9-1-1 best practices have been applied (see: CRTC defines 9-1-1 best practices for multi-line telephone systems).