Saanich Coun. Susan Brice and Mayor Fred Haynes are calling on the province to develop new solutions for emergency response to mental health crises with the consideration of a potential new 911 category. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)

Saanich Coun. Susan Brice and Mayor Fred Haynes are calling on the province to develop new solutions for emergency response to mental health crises with the consideration of a potential new 911 category. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)

UPDATED: Saanich council calls for new solutions to mental health emergencies

Shifting response from police to trained mental health team the best option, mayor says

When someone having a mental health emergency calls 911, it’s often police who respond but Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes and Coun. Susan Brice are calling on the province to develop new solutions to better serve those in crisis.

Council received a report from Haynes and Brice March 1, recommending that the district write to the province advocating for the creation of a separate, adequately funded emergency response for mental health calls. This, the pair said, will address the volume and variety of mental health emergencies effectively without increasing the burden on current 911 and 811 call systems. Council voted unanimously in favour of the recommendations.

READ ALSO: Civilians perform safe CPR on cardiac arrest patient in Saanich park amid pandemic

Currently, the response to mental health-related calls is “police-centric” and while they are well-trained, they don’t have advanced medical knowledge, Haynes explained. An integrated mental health team with “trauma-informed protocols” could provide complex care for folks struggling with mental health- or addiction-related crises.

Emergency assistance from such a team could possibly be accessed through a separate 911 category or a new number entirely, he said.

In Saanich, police already take part in an Integrated Mobile Crisis Team (IMCT) and Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team which are comprised of officers, nurses, social workers and other mental health professionals. Together, they respond to mental health emergencies and connect patients to support services but their hours are limited.

The Ministry of Health would need to spearhead such a program with input from professionals and impacted families for the most effective results, said Brice, a former B.C. minister of mental health and addictions. The province has already identified mental illness and addiction as health issues, but there remains a gap in emergency response.

“We’re hoping the province will see fit to help find a solution” that combines medical attention with education, she said, adding that a specific mental health emergency response would also help reduce stigma.

READ ALSO: Crisis calls in B.C. still climbing despite hope brought by rollout of COVID-19 vaccine

The Saanich Police Department would support a properly resourced response model “that provides better community and medical supports for people living with mental health issues,” said Const. Markus Anastasiades, public information officer. It would allow mental health calls with no public safety implications to be diverted from police – who have long been left to “fill the void created by funding cuts in social and medical welfare systems.”

While officers are trained in crisis intervention, they cannot replace proper medical care, he said.

Haynes and Brice emphasized that the IMCT and ACT are effective but limited in terms of resources so additional funding from the province would allow these models to be expanded.

Pending council’s support, the matter will also be forwarded to the province’s Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

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