Mental health crisis teams are a first step to ending tragic deaths

Posted on January 28, 2021 in Health Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial

Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Ejaz Choudry. D’Andre Campbell. Rodney Levi. Chantel Moore.

The details of their lives and deaths are different. But one thing they all have in common is that they died after police were called to help them during a mental health crisis last year.

After years of wringing our collective hands at these kinds of tragedies, which occur right across the country, and reading the recommendations of far too many coroner’s inquests about the need to better train police, the push for a completely different response is finally gaining ground.

On Wednesday, Toronto’s executive committee approved a pilot project that could grow into a new emergency service tasked with responding to many mental health crisis calls.

Under the city’s plan, a team of mental health professionals well trained in de-escalation and crisis intervention will start responding to what are deemed non-violent mental health calls — instead of armed police officers.

It’s a preliminary step. It starts with just three response teams for specific areas of the city, plus an Indigenous-led team. The pilot period is years long, from 2022 to 2025. And undoubtedly there’s insufficient funding to do the full job that’s needed.

Still, it’s an important beginning. Toronto council should approve this at its meeting next week.

“Person in crisis” calls to 911 are increasing; they’re up more than 30 per cent in Toronto over the past five years. Toronto police now respond to some 30,000 mental-health calls a year.

Decades of provincial underinvestment in mental health services has left people vulnerable. They’re falling into distress and that, as the city report says, results in “increased interactions with police.”

“Police have essentially become default first responders of the mental health care system,” it adds.

This can’t go on. People calling for help in the midst of a medical crisis need appropriate help, not an armed response. Not only are police not needed for the vast majority of mental health crisis calls, they have proven, time and again, that they don’t have the right skills for them.

And every time armed officers in uniform arrive and things go poorly it serves to further increase fear and decreases trust in the police. That’s especially true of Indigenous and racialized communities who have the worst outcomes when it comes to interactions with police.

A team of specially trained civilians is clearly the better response. But these crisis teams are not a magic bullet to ending bad experiences and tragic deaths of people in the throes of a mental health crisis at the hands of police.

Even if this pilot project is a great success and the city is able to fast-track a full service it will still be police, not a specially trained crisis team, that will respond to a great many mental health crisis calls.

The teams will be dispatched only to non-violent mental health calls. And given the difficult and discretionary decisions that will be made on what is considered a violent mental health call, undoubtedly police will still wind up responding to many more of these calls than they should.

So it is imperative that the creation of these teams doesn’t lead to any relaxing of efforts to improve police training on responding to mental health crisis, de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention without the use of deadly force.

Without that, people in crisis will continue to die needlessly.

Equally important is the expansion of mental health programs. The very need for these teams in Toronto stems from the fact that Ontario has utterly failed to provide the mental health programs that are so desperately needed.

Ultimately, people need access to mental health services, not just a more successful response to a crisis call.

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