09/16/2014 06:35 EDT | Updated 09/16/2014 06:59 EDT

Yukon Distress And Support Line To Lend An Ear For Mental Health

When it comes to mental health in the Yukon, there's a hole where help should be, and one northern agency is working to fill it with the help of the Bell Let's Talk program.

The Second Opinion Society (SOS) announced last week the launch of the Yukon Distress and Support Line, a phone service that will field calls between at late hours starting Nov. 24.

"This phone line is our effort to ensure a confidential, anonymous and safe space for anyone who is experiencing distress," Hailey Hechtman, the society's coordinator of planning, development and finance, said in a news release.

The toll-free line, which is set to operate from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., will be staffed by 12 to 20 volunteers who will take calls in shifts, The Whitehorse Daily Star reported.

They will help callers with issues such as suicide prevention by giving them someone to listen during hours when they might not be able to access other services.

"Statistically, feelings of isolation, loneliness and situations of crisis and suicide are much more likely to happen at night," Hechtman said in a Yukon News story.

The phone line can't come soon enough for the Yukon, a region where hospitalizations relating to mental illness and self-injury exceed the Canadian average, says a report by the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI).

"Health Indicators 2013" shows that the rate of hospitalizations due to self-injury in Yukon was 175 per 100,000 people between 2011 and 2012, coming in behind Nunavut (383) and the Northwest Territories (210). The Canadian average was 67 per 100,000.

In the same period, the number of people in Yukon who went to hospital for reasons relating to mental illness was 787 per 100,000 people, this time coming in below the Northwest Territories (1,544) and Prince Edward Island (838). Canada's average was 489 per 100,000 people. The Northwest Territories already has the NWT Help Line in place, which answers calls between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

In development for almost a year, the phone line is being realized in part due to funding from the Bell Let's Talk Community Fund, which contributed $30,000 to support its operation. Northern telecommunications company NorthwesTel Inc. has committed $25,000, while Government of Yukon Health and Social Services is providing $8,100 over six months.

"Today there's still quite a bit of stigma around the topic of mental health," NorthwesTel president and CEO Paul Flaherty said in the Yukon News. "So this type of line provides a nice opportunity for people to reach out and get some help in an anonymous way and hopefully encourages more people to do it."

The funding should keep the program running for approximately a year, so SOS is also seeking donations to maintain it beyond that.

The phone line's announcement comes months after Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk, completed a cross-country bike ride as part of Clara's Big Ride, which was designed to promote dialogue around mental health.

As Hughes cycled into Iqaluit, Nunavut in May, Bell Let's Talk announced it would contribute $1 million toward mental health initiatives in the northern territories, including Yukon.

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