Teams pairing cops with mental health workers expanding to 9 B.C. communities

Click to play video: 'B.C government expands program for mental health calls, but nurses union worries about staffing'
B.C government expands program for mental health calls, but nurses union worries about staffing
WATCH: The B.C. government is expanding its Car program into 10 more communities. The program pairs police officers with mental health professionals for mental health police calls. And as Rumina Daya reports, the BC Nurses' Union is worried the expansion will put more strain on the nursing shortage – Jul 17, 2023

The B.C. government has announced $3 million in funding to expand programs that pair police with mental health workers to respond to mental health crises.

The funding will allow the addition of mobile integrated crisis teams, often known as “car” programs, to nine new communities.

“We have heard from law enforcement agencies that they are responding to more and more calls from people who are experiencing mental health or substance use crises, and we know that they have as first responders long been the default response in these situations,” Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside told media in Chilliwack on Monday.

Click to play video: 'New all-party policing report says it is time to deal differently with mental health calls'
New all-party policing report says it is time to deal differently with mental health calls

“And we have heard calls from all of our partners, from people with lived experience across the province to know better and to do better, and to recognize that a law enforcement approach doesn’t work for everyone or in all situations.”

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According to the province, as many as one in five interactions with police in B.C. involves someone with a mental health disorder.

Whiteside said the goal of the “car” teams is to respond to such situations in a trauma-informed way.

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The mental health worker is able to de-escalate situations, involve the patient’s family or loved ones, help figure out the best next step for care and provide on-site mental health and emotional assessments, Whiteside said.

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New Victoria program to provide mental health support

The police officer half of the duo allows that work to be conducted safely, she said.

Expanding so-called “car” teams was among a number of mental health recommendations included in a review of B.C.’s Police Act by an all-party legislative committee in April 2022.

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That report also called for the integration of mental health services into 911 call options, and boosting co-ordination and integration between police and health, mental health and social services.

“Police have been the default first responders in the event of a mental health crisis, and we know that in most cases police-only involvement is not the most appropriate response,” Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth 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.”

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Psychiatric nurse Tina Baker, who has worked with Surrey’s Car 67 program for 12 years, said she was “thrilled” the initiative was being expanded to new communities.

“It’s long overdue and there are many people in our communities suffering with mental health issues and not knowing where to turn to until it becomes too late and it becomes a mental health crisis,” she said.

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Baker said one of the key benefits of the “car” program was that as a part of the Fraser Health Authority, she has access to patients’ medical records. That allows the team to prepare ahead of time for their interaction with a person in crisis, she said.

Because the teams are mobile, she said, they are also able to assess patients in their own home or an environment where they are comfortable.

“(That) allows us to slow the interactions down and allows that person in crisis to process that experience and allows us to de-escalate and use trauma-informed care,” she said.

“Many individuals’ mental health crisis will heighten when law enforcement is present, and when the Car 67 team and the mental health program does come to these files it does more often than not de-escalate the situation.”

The new teams will be activated in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam, Penticton, Burnaby, Vernon, Squamish, Prince Rupert and the Westshore region outside of Victoria.

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

Whiteside did not say exactly when the teams would be up and running.

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