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City of Toronto staff recommend 3-year mental health crisis response service pilot program

Click to play video: 'Toronto looks to create mental health crisis response team' Toronto looks to create mental health crisis response team
WATCH ABOVE: Human rights activist and co-creator of ‘Reach Out Response Network’ Asante Haughton talks about the city’s creation of a mental health emergency network that won’t include police intervention – Sep 21, 2020

Months after Toronto city council directed municipal staff to investigate creating a mobile crisis assistance intervention service as part of a suite of police reform measures, a new report is proposing a three-year pilot program.

However, some concerns are being raised about the lengthy timeline associated with the proposal given there might not see citywide implementation until 2026 if the initiative is ultimately deemed a success.

Also, questions were raised about the parameters that might be put in place for responding to calls.

Details of the pilot were announced earlier in the day. If approved by the City’s executive committee and council, services will be established in northwest Toronto, Scarborough and downtown Toronto as well as a dedicated program for Toronto’s Indigenous community. The services are proposed to operate between 2022 and 2025 with an annual cost between $7.2 and $7.9 million.

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Read more: Mental health emergency response service based on noted Oregon model could come to Toronto

The report said the service would be for “some non-emergency calls” (such as someone who is reporting to be in crisis or a request for a wellness check) that a multidisciplinary team of workers with special training in de-escalation and crisis response.

Asante Haughton, a Toronto-based mental health advocate, and Rachel Bromberg, Canadian national co-ordinator of the International Mobile Services Network, joined together to form the Reach Out Response Network. The group, which welcomed the report, was established to push for a civilian mobile crisis program to be adopted in the city.

Haughton said one of his main concerns revolves around “political will.”

“I fear that this issue will not be at the forefront of people’s minds two or three years from now and because of that it might not be in the minds of politicians or those who have power and influence to make change happen,” he told Global News on Wednesday when asked about the report.

“We see mental health challenges, and distress in particular, as something that’s dangerous and we want to shift that perception to something different so that we recognize people who are in a lot of distress or are in a crisis are not dangerous. They are vulnerable, they need help, they need compassion and all of those things that help move us toward not just a more equitable society but also a society that cares about each other more.”

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Bromberg said she too is concerned about such a long assessment period, adding other cities have studied and implemented mental health crisis support services quicker. However, she said she doesn’t want to see corners cut or a lack of proper resourcing.

When it comes to the types of calls to which the teams would respond, Bromberg said she needs additional clarity on the definition of “non-emergency.” She said most mental health calls are people who need urgent help.

“We wouldn’t want to create another under-resourced service that can’t get there fast enough when someone is in crisis and needs help,” Bromberg said.

As protests related to anti-Black racism and the Black Lives Matter movement have grown in recent months, along with more instances of individuals in mental health crisis dying after interactions with police, the push by advocates for emergency mental health response services to be created and dispatched in place of officers grew.

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Read more: Toronto’s CAMH says police should not be 1st responders to mental health calls

The need for better assistance was also highlighted in the report released on Wednesday.

“Underinvestment in mental health treatment over several decades has meant that more people with mental illness are not receiving the supports they need and are falling into distress, resulting in increased interactions with police, who have essentially become default first responders of the mental health-care system for those experiencing crisis,” staff wrote, noting there has been a 32.4-per-cent increase in crisis calls over the past five years.

“However, using law enforcement to address health issues creates service barriers and risks for many Torontonians, particularly Indigenous, Black, and equity-deserving communities. Systemic discrimination in Toronto has negatively impacted how these communities experience community safety.”

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has also been advocating for improved crisis care options instead of police services being the lead responders.

The report will be considered by the executive committee on Jan. 27.

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