B.C. promises $3-million to expand program that partners police with health care workers

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B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Jennifer Whiteside did not provide a specific timeline for when the new programs would be running, but says she anticipates them in ‘fairly short order.’DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is spending $3-million to expand a program that partners health-care workers with policein mobile teams to respond to mental health-related calls.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Monday that the program aims to connect people in crisis to the appropriate services in their community, while taking pressure off stretched police resources.

“Currently, police have been the default first responders for people in the event of a mental health crisis and we know that in most cases, police-only involvement is not the most appropriate response,” he said.

“More importantly, having police-only involvement can help contribute to the stigmatization of mental health, and even deter people in crisis from seeking help.”

New teams are being funded for Abbotsford, Port Coquitlam/Coquitlam, Burnaby, Chilliwack, Penticton, Vernon, Squamish, Prince Rupert and the Westshore on southern Vancouver Island.

Similar programs already exist in 10 B.C. communities including Kamloops, Victoria, Surrey and Vancouver.

The government said one in five interactions with police in B.C. involves someone with a mental health disorder.

Penticton Mayor Julius Bloomfield said he expects his community’s numbers are higher than the provincial average. He said his council has been lobbying the government for such a program for nearly two years.

“It takes some of the strain away from the RCMP when they’re on wellness checks. It’s the length of time it takes on processing the folks when they are in a wellness checks,” he said in an interview on Monday.

“If they do require treatment, it takes up a lot of time with the officer in getting them to the hospital and getting them processed through the system. If that can be left to the mental health worker, then the RCMP officer can get on with doing some other work that they’re much needed at.”

Stacy Ashton, executive director of the Crisis Centre of B.C., says while programs like this have their place, they’re not the preferred response for the general population experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The vast majority of people who are in a mental health crisis are not violent, are peaceful folks who are just in a lot of pain right now,” she said.

“And having police arrive can escalate the situation for them, can cause fear and agitation, that just kind of increases the crisis instead of de-escalating it.

“And that’s not necessarily the fault of the police. You can be the best police officer in the world but you can still have that impact on folks.”

Ashton said details of the programs will be important including whether the officer of the health-care worker is considered the leader when responding to calls.

“Are you using a [police response] where you don’t need one? Where a peer-assisted crisis team or a non-police team would be perfectly appropriate?” she said.

Mental Health and Addiction Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the government is also investing in those peer-assisted care teams as well as a range of other mental health supports.

“We know that there is so much more to do and these teams announced today are really just one part, one tool, of all of the work that we are doing to support people with mental health (or) addictions in our communities, to make everyone feel safe and cared for in our communities,” she said.

It’s unclear how long it will take the expanded programs to begin, particularly with struggles across the country in recruiting and retaining health-care workers.

Whiteside did not provide a specific timeline but said she anticipates the teams will start in “fairly short order.”

She said health-care workers on the new teams could include nurses, social workers or community mental health workers, and those decisions will be up to the various health authorities and communities involved.

Bloomfield said meetings have been scheduled over the next few days with provincial officials to get details about how many health-care workers are being funded and when the program could start.

“Obviously, we’d like to see it as soon as possible. But, you know, we are practical and understand that it may take time to put the program into place,” he said.

“But I know that some of the preparation work has already been done and so I’m hopeful that it will come online ASAP.”


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