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New model of response to mental health calls coming to New West — soon

Purpose Society selected to operate the Peer Assisted Care Team pilot project in New West
PACT pilot project
The PACT pilot project is getting closer to hitting the streets in New West.

A new approach to crisis care will soon be getting underway in New Westminster.

Jonny Morris, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said the launch of the Peer Assisted Care Team (PACT) pilot project is “imminent” in New West. PACT pairs a mental health professional and a trained peer crisis responder, who will respond to mental health crisis calls instead of police officers.

“Last week, the province received a report, an independent report on mental health safety and violence from two independent researchers. And it was, I think, a magical moment to see that the top recommendation in the report … was about the province investing more in peer assisted care teams,” he told council. “So a very instrumental report, with one of the top recommendations being to do more of the work that we're describing here in the city of New Westminster.”

At Monday’s meeting, city council approved a staff recommendation to support the selection of the Lower Mainland Purpose Society as the operator of a one-year PACT pilot project in New West.

Morris said the CMHA, the city and the province have achieved a lot in a short amount of time to launch the pilot project.

“We're here to share that we actually have a team that will be launching very quickly here in the community,” he said.

Morris could not give a specific start date but said it would be imminent. In the coming weeks, he said training, outreach and support would get underway the Purpose Society.

Morris  said the need for an alternative response to mental health distress calls grows every time there is a high-profile incident in the community.

Work done to date includes engagement with community organizations and First Nations to develop the plan, the selection of a service provider, the hiring of a PACT program coordinator and the development of a training schedule for PACT members, who will respond to crisis calls in a van provided by the Canadian Mental Health Association BC.

A staff report noted that an extensive campaign is being developed that will let the community know how to reach the PACT team when it’s needed.

Provincewide interest

Morris said PACT was a “topic of interest” at the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, with a number municipalities asking how they could get a PACT team of their own.

“That's music to our ears,” he said. “And I think we're seeing such strong indications of support provincially for the work going forward.”

Morris said CMHA is in active conversations with the province and other municipalities around how PACT could move beyond a pilot project into a meaningful branch of community-based, community-owned and community-centered mental health response that provides the right care at the right time.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa expressed gratitude for the work done by the CMHA and city staff to get the project off the ground so quickly.

“We have moved, truly at lightning speed, on this file,” she said. “I don't think people realize how the pace of this has been so extraordinary compared to these other projects I've seen the city take on. And it is because there's a dire need for it.”

In November 2021, council approved the city’s participation in the PACT pilot project, in collaboration with the CMHA and the City of Victoria, the City of North Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver. That followed a February 2021 submission by the city to the province that supported a transition from a police response to a community response for mental health crisis calls.

Mayor Jonathan Cote said city officials have talked for years about the “broken system” about how people in a mental health crisis are dealt with in communities. He said the first responders who respond to those calls are not always trained or the right people to help de-escalate those situations.

“Although I'm incredibly hopeful that this program is going to be successful, and looking forward to seeing how it impacts the community here in New Westminster, I think the impact of this program will go far beyond the City of New Westminster,” he said. “We are leading the way with the pilot program. I guess there'll be learnings through this process – how do we make sure we're doing this work right. But I'm quite confident we are going to be paving the way to a model that we are going to see all over the province of British Columbia.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association and the PACT working group are working with the project to help secure funding for the remaining years of the five-year pilot project, said a staff report.

According to the report, increased advocacy for mental health support and coordination of services is required. At the Oct. 3 meeting, council also approved a staff recommendation that council support strengthened advocacy for mental health support in the community, including advocacy for the 52 units of supportive housing planned at 68 Sixth St.