Toronto’s first-ever mental health crisis response teams — without police — to launch in March – Toronto Star

A display of flowers sits in front of an apartment building on High Park Avenue, at the spot where Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death in May 2020, after police responded to a crisis call. The city is launching civilian-led crisis support service teams in March.

  • A display of flowers sits in front of an apartment building on High Park Avenue, at the spot where Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death in May 2020, after police responded to a crisis call. The city is launching civilian-led crisis support service teams in March.

  • Liben Gebremikael is executive director of the TAIBU Community Health Centre, a Scarborough-based agency that has supported Black communities in Toronto since its inception 14 years ago.

The teams will dispatch nurses and mental health support workers instead of officers to respond to 911 calls about people in crisis.

By Nadine YousifMental Health Reporter

Wed., Jan. 19, 20224 min. read

Toronto’s long-awaited civilian-led mental health crisis response teams are set to take to the streets within weeks.

The city unveiled new details on its non-police mental health crisis response effort, on Wednesday, including a revised launch date of March for two of four planned pilot teams, and an ask of an additional $8.5 million in funding this year to help them run.

The Community Crisis Support Service teams are the first of their kind in the province, and will dispatch nurses and mental health support workers instead of police officers to respond to 911 calls about people in crisis.

They were approved unanimously by City Council last February after growing protests against police brutality and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an afro-Indigenous Toronto woman who died in police presence during a mental health crisis call in May 2020.

The first two pilots will launch in the city’s northeast and downtown east area in March, while the remaining two in the northwest and downtown west will launch in June — areas flagged as having the highest need. Details were released in a proposal that is scheduled to go before the city’s executive committee next week.

Speaking to media earlier Wednesday, Mayor John Tory said the pilot teams are a “significant new initiative” and the city is committed to developing them. If the pilots are successful, the goal is to expand them citywide by 2025 or sooner.

“Residents and community organizations have made it clear that they want a non-police response, in appropriate situations, to those in crisis,” Tory said.

The Gerstein Crisis Centre, which already ran a smaller-scale mental health crisis response program for more than 30 years in downtown Toronto, will be leading the downtown east pilot. TAIBU Community Health Centre, a Scarborough-based agency that has supported Black communities in Toronto since its inception 14 years ago, will run the northeast pilot.

The northwest pilot will be led by the Canadian Mental Health Association of Toronto, and the downtown west pilot will be Indigenous-led and spearheaded by 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, a non-profit social service in the St. Lawrence area.

“We’re really looking forward to demonstrating in this pilot that when communities come together and plan services, we can have effective support for people,” TAIBU’s executive director Liben Gebremikael told the Star.

The terms of the pilots are outlined in a memorandum of understanding signed by both city staff and the Toronto Police Service, Wednesday’s report outlined. The non-police teams will offer crisis response to calls made to both 911 and 211, the city’s helpline for community and social services.

For 911 calls, the teams will, with the consent of the caller, respond to calls in their geographic area that are “non-emergency and present no public safety concerns,” the report said. All calls will be triaged by 211’s dispatch centre.

Types of calls the teams can respond to include threatened suicide, a person in crisis, well-being checks, disorderly behaviour, disputes, and any calls that have a behavioural or mental health element that would benefit from a non-police, community-based response. In 2020, Toronto Police responded to more than 33,000 person-in-crisis calls — the highest volume to date.

The teams will include nurses, mental health clinicians, addictions specialists, and other support staff and people with lived experience who will be trained in de-escalation practices and harm reduction, the city outlined.

All teams will also have case management staff who will refer callers to other organizations in the area if longer-term support is needed.

Gerbmikael said TAIBU is still in the process of finalizing its team, which will include Wellness Outreach Workers who will promote the pilot in the community and work to assess if individuals need help before they reach a crisis point.

Susan Davis, the executive director of the Gerstein Centre, said the agency will be hiring 20 staff for their pilot team, including those who will help with referrals.

The city said there are plans to evaluate the teams on a yearly basis to measure their outcomes. The findings will be used to help guide how the program develops moving forward.

Expansion, the city report said, will depend on whether the teams are effective in meeting the needs of callers and connecting them to supports, as well as whether the city is able to meet the resourcing needs of the team.

Currently, city staff project the program will need around $8.5 million in funding this year to operate the four pilots, including the hiring of six, new full-time staff to help support their implementation. This will be in addition to $2.8 million allocated in 2021 to help set up the pilots, as well as pay for dispatch equipment and radios for the mobile teams.

Tory said the pilots are fully funded in this year’s proposed budget. “We know this is something residents want, and we know we need to put sufficient resources behind it,” he said.

Gerbmikael said his organization is looking forward to continued support from the city, so that the teams can become permanent. Davis added the pilots’ success also lies in different organizations — hospitals, social services and police — working together to make sure people who need help receive it.

“Creating low barriers for access, and making people feel comfortable to be able to reach out when they’re in crisis, will be really important,” she said.

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