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Victoria peer-assisted crisis team looks to be difference-maker for mental health calls

Victoria News - 9/17/2021

Police aren't always the best people to respond to a person in crisis, nor should they be expected to be.

This is one of the main principles behind a new pilot project being developed in Victoria this year that will prioritize providing peer-assisted mental health support to people in distress.

Someone experiencing a mental health crisis now has limited options. They can call police or an ambulance – neither of which can offer constructive supports and both of which can be anxiety-inducing for vulnerable populations – or, if they know of it, they can call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line to access a mobile crisis response team of social workers, nurses and plain-clothes police officers between 1 p.m. and midnight.

Two things are missing, according to the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association's B.C. chapter, Jonny Morris. Peer-assisted response and a structure that ensures crisis calls are being attended by the best people.

"Having a peer, someone with lived experience of mental illness who's trained as well, can go a long way for making someone feel safe in the moment," Morris said.

Victoria received $350,000 from B.C.'s Strengthening Communities' Services program in August and will be using the next year to consult with the community and develop a pilot program based on its input. The resulting crisis response team will likely feature a combination of trained peers, mental health and social workers, and psychiatric nurses to respond to mental health calls instead of, or in combination with, police.

Different forms of crisis response teams are just taking off in Edmonton, Toronto and Saskatchewan, but a model has long existed in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon. There, the CAHOOTS team takes on approximately five to eight per cent of the police departments calls for service. This can take some burden off police and free them up to attend more serious criminal calls.

Being overburdened is something the Victoria Police Department has frequently raised concerns about. Chief Const. Del Manak has expressed support for diverting some mental health calls, so long as they don't take away from the police budget.

"Over recent years, police agencies have been required to fill the void created by gaps in social programs, which often places police officers in an untenable position. Often, the police are the only ones left to call in situations where a social worker or mental health professional could have been more appropriate," he wrote in a news release in June 2020, shortly after Chantal Moore was shot and killed by a police officer in New Brunswick during a wellness check.

A mental health-focused response team also has the opportunity to offer an individual in crisis supports that could help break the cycle of emergency need. Often, Morris said, crises are the result of loss of employment, housing or a loved one, or problems with the law, addiction or mental health. These issues need to be addressed for long-term change to occur, he added.

The issue of alternative approaches to mental health calls was raised again in the region recently. On Sept. 12, a man described in a report to Saanich police as being armed and in crisis was shot and killed by a police officer near Mayfair Shopping Centre, after roughly an hour of negotiations. The incident is being investigated by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C.

Morris said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the specific incident, but emphasized that having mental health expertise during a crisis offers opportunities for different kinds of interactions.

Victoria Coun. Sarah Potts, who's been working closely on the peer-assisted crisis team, agreed, noting that had the team been in place there would have been a different response and possibly a better outcome.

"What we do know is when we have health professionals on the frontline of a mental health crisis, people don't die," she said.

The pilot peer-assisted crisis team is expected to be fully operational within the year.

Anyone in need of mental health support now can call B.C.'s 24/7 crisis line at 310-6789 (no area code needed).