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Mental health pilot project planning continues in New West

Peers and mental health specialists would respond to crises instead of cops
Mental health - Getty
New Westminster is participating in a pilot project with the Canadian Mental Health Association that seeks to change the way the community responds to mental health crises.

New Westminster is making progress on plans to find new ways of responding to mental health calls.

In November 2021, council approved the city’s participation in the Peer Assisted Crisis Team pilot project with the Canadian Mental Health Association and the cities of Victoria and North Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver.

On Feb. 14, council approved a community engagement plan for the PACT pilot project, which will be conducted in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association. It also approved the hiring of a project coordinator – crisis care reform to support the pilot project.

“Council is committed to developing a compassionate response to those experiencing mental health crisis and poverty across the city,” said a staff report. “We know we need to be bold to take steps to lift up the most vulnerable, especially those experiencing mental health crisis, poverty and homelessness. We also know that we need different approaches to domestic and sexual violence. There is a need for a suite of community responses to mental health crisis that priorities compassionate care.”

Chief Const. Dave Jansen of the New Westminster Police Department has been vocal about his support of the PACT pilot program, saying police are not the most appropriate response for dealing with calls related to issues involving mental health, addictions and homelessness.

“We are going to continue to support the city in their work with the Peer Assisted Crisis Team – the PACT team,” he told the police board on Feb. 15. “It was at council yesterday and got approval to move forward with some more work that’s being done, which is awesome. We are very supportive of that and hope to see that work come to reality in the not too distant future.”

Last February, council passed a resolution supporting a transition from primarily a police response to a community response to mental health crises in New West. The city’s police reform working group, which was created to prepare a submission from the city to the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act (and the Mental Health Act), also called for changes in the way communities respond to mental health crises.

“In B.C., police officers are often the frontline responders to mental health crises,” said the recent update to council. “Due to legislation and a lack of voluntary health and social services, people experiencing a mental health crisis are typically transported by police to only one of two options: hospital emergency rooms or the prison system. Neither is well-equipped to address the complex issues that led to the crisis.”

PACT will see mobile crisis teams, staffed by peer and mental health specialists, responding to mental health calls. PACT would provide support and connection to services, such as mental health, housing, treatment, benefits and employment.

“PACT is an alternative or auxiliary service to police response to crisis calls related to mental health,” said the report. “The intention is to move from an incarceration approach to a health response to mental health crisis.”

According to the staff report, the city and the Canadian Mental Health Association will implement Phase 1 over the next year. In Phase 1, the working group will identify the service gaps in mental health support in New West, understand and map out the current services for the city’s most vulnerable populations, establish a community-development implementation plan for the five-year PACT pilot project, and cultivate “champions” and an understanding of the project among key groups in the city.

“Phase 1 of the PACT pilot project is currently underway in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association,” said the report. “This report outlined the plan for implementation of Phase 1. The approval of the community engagement plan is recommended, as well as hiring a staff resource to support the facilitation of the project in order to build internal capacity and help implement the plan.”

The PACT working group, city staff and the CMHA will continue to work with the province to help secure funding for Phase 2 of the pilot project.