In response to the distressing death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet last summer who fell off of her 24th floor balcony while fleeing police officers responding to a wellness check at her residence, a pilot project to allow for mental health professionals to act as first responders for non-violent mental health calls was proposed.
Last week, Toronto City Council unanimously passed a proposal to begin a pilot program allowing mental health professionals to act as first responders for non-violent mental health calls instead of police officers.
Toronto Police Services has seen a 32.4 percent increase in “person in crisis” calls, which refers to those experiencing a temporary breakdown of coping skills. In 2019, police in Toronto responded to over 30,000 of these non-violent crisis calls.
Unfortunately, more people with mental illness in Toronto are not receiving the support they require and are suffering as a result. Occasionally, those in crisis face interactions with the police who act as default first responders for mental health support for those in crisis. Using law enforcement to address mental health issues has not proven effective and has resulted in systemic discrimination and impacted community trust and confidence in the police. Research reveals that Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities, including the 2SLGBTQ+ community, have lost confidence in and feel mistrust with respect to the police service response to those in crisis.
A survey of Toronto residents was conducted last December regarding perceptions of the need for a community-based crisis response. According to responses, a greater percent of Indigenous residents and members of the African, Caribbean, and Black community reported a preference for calling a non-police crisis response team in a situation where they are bystanders to the harmful effects of substance use.
The survey also revealed that most Toronto residents were of the opinion that licensed mental health professionals or paramedics were the more appropriate first responders in a situation that involves a health-related issue, such as one involving the harmful effects or substance use or mental health issues.
According to Indigenous residents who responded to the survey, they were more inclined to choose licensed mental health professionals or paramedics as first responders for a health-related crisis. They also preferred a first responder who was an Indigenous Elder/support worker or who had experience with mental health challenges and substance use.
The survey results showed that 67 percent of Toronto residents support the proposal to shift funds from police services to community-based services in response to different situations.
THE COMMUNITY CRISIS SUPPORT SERVICE PILOT PROJECT
Toronto City Council has approved the community crisis support pilot project for non-emergency calls for service, which will run from 2022-2025. It has been proposed that mobile crisis support teams will be made up of a multi-disciplinary team of those experienced in crisis intervention and de-escalation training to respond to persons in crisis and wellness checks, with a minimum of two crisis workers responding to calls. A case manager, holistic or culturally-specific mental health expert or outreach worker will also support the calls where their expertise is required. All staff will receive extensive training in advanced first aid, de-escalation and situational awareness and field training.
The non-police-led response to crisis pilot project is modelled after the successful community-based safety system called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), which was established in 1989 in City of Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS provides mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addition. A two-person team consisting of a medic and a crisis worker who has extensive training and experience are deployed to deal with mental health related crises, welfare checks, conflict resolution, substance abuse, suicide threats, amongst others.
In the GTA, four teams will be established as part of the pilot project – one in the northwest (Etobicoke), one in the northeast (Scarborough), one in the eastern area of downtown Toronto and one devoted specifically to Toronto’s Indigenous population.
It is not clear how calls will be received by the new crisis response team, however, Mayor John Tory is endorsing a review of the “governance and operation of 911”.
It has been proposed that a crisis call hotline, such as 211, be set up for those who are uncomfortable accessing services through 911. A multi-lingual education campaign will also be required to educate the public on the new crisis response service, how to access it and when to call 911 for medical emergencies.
These pilot programs would allow for a non-police-led response for non-emergency, non-violent calls, including those involving persons in distress and for wellness checks. The intention is that these mental health professionals will be the first responders. This is a step in the right direction. These pilots are being done in the right way with the best advice from our professional staff and they will help Toronto residents who are experiencing in their lives a non-violent crisis.
We will continue to follow the news regarding the community crisis support service pilot project and will report on the developments in this blog.
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