Someone calls 911 during a mental health crisis. The dispatcher picks up the phone.
“Are you calling for yourself or someone else? Can you give me an idea of the kind of assistance you need?” she asks. The caller answers.
“Is anyone injured? Are there any weapons?” the dispatcher goes on, according to a sample script provided by Toronto police. “Are you thinking of hurting yourself? Are you safe right now? Is anyone with you? Any drugs or alcohol?”
The person calling replies.
“I understand you need mental health support and we have a crisis responder co-located in our call centre. Do you consent to speak with them instead of the police?”
This is what it sounds like when someone in crisis calls 911 in the downtown east area of Toronto. It’s the result of the one-year pilot project that launched March 31 that involves the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and the Gerstein Crisis Centre (GCC), a mental health organization.
WATCH | Toronto Police and Gerstein Crisis Centre team up to launch 911 pilot project:
Gerstein Crisis Centre workers are now available in 911 call centres and respond to mental health calls in the community instead of police officers. And the new program doesn’t end there — GCC workers will also follow-up and connect individuals to further support, such as counselling, after the initial case.
A new approach to mental health emergency calls
Members of city council and Toronto Police discussed the details of the pilot project in a board meeting on Jan. 26. It aims to change the traditional policing response to mental health issues.
Several high-profile cases brought the police’s response to mental health calls into question and motivated police to launch this pilot, such as the case of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from a building to her death in the presence of police during a mental health crisis.
Susan Davis, executive director of the Gerstein Crisis Centre, says she was “excited” to jump on board for this pilot because the GCC has seen decades of underinvestment in community mental health and mental health services.
“I think that the level of the understanding in the community grew to the extent that we don’t have it right,” Davis said.
“Mental health crises should be responded to through a health and social lense with people who really understand those issue.”
WATCH | The history of the Gerstein Crisis Centre explained:
Toronto Police Supt. David Rydzik, the officer who took over the mental health and addictions strategy portfolio in November, said that this new pilot is a great way to get people connected to the right resources.
“In reality, should we (the TPS) really be in the mental health business? No,” he said. “There are lots of other agencies who are far better suited to dealing with this particular issue.”
The pilot program is part of an intentional shift from a default police response to mental health calls to a “more purpose-built response that is well informed by people who understand mental health,” Davis said.
“We have to be better at what we do.” he said. “These are people’s lives. If we don’t get things right there could be grave consequences.”
How it works
Ten GCC staff will operate in the TPS 911 Call Centre 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Two staff will work per day, one from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and another from 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m.
“We looked at the calls for service and the service call volumes and these are the times that they’re covering,” Rydzik said. “If a call comes in when they’re not sitting there, then the response will be what it has always been before that, we’ll get that call and we’ll attend.”
The pilot currently runs in 14, 51 and 52 Divisions, where apprehensions under the Mental Health Act and 911 calls for people in crisis are the highest.
14 Division covers:
· West-Dufferin St. south to Queen St., West to Roncesvalles; South from Roncesvalles to the shoreline
· North-Canadian Pacific Railway line
· East-Spadina Ave., Lower Spadina Ave.
· South-Toronto shoreline
51 Division covers:
· West-Yonge St., Dundas Sq., Victoria St., Dundas St. E, Yonge St.
· North-Bloor St. E, Prince Edward Viaduct
· East-Don River, Lakeshore Blvd. E, Don Roadway
· South-Toronto shoreline
52 Division covers:
· West-Lower Spadina Ave., Spadina Ave.
· North-Bloor St. W
· East-Yonge St., Dundas St. E, Victoria St., Dundas Sq., Yonge St.
· South-Toronto shoreline
The project will cost an estimated $552,000 and will be paid for with the TPS operating budget.
A Toronto police dispatcher still determines who is best to attend each emergency call. Calls that involve weapons or an immediate threat to life will not be diverted, according to the Toronto police.
Read more from the Observer:
- Moving Connections program helps people boost their mental health through dance
- An AI chatbot is offering to be your therapist, for free — for now
As the pilot grows and develops the Gerstein Crisis Centre will “include more people and more services” for follow-up resources.
John Sewell, a mental health advocate and co-ordinator of Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said that the call pilot ong-awaited that the community needs more than crisis workers embedded in 911 call centres.
Sewell said “the police should be giving these organizations enough funding so that they can actually respond in crisis.” as most of the mental health calls that come into 911 do not have a violent element, he added.
“They should be getting that money over to mental health organizations who know how to deal with these kinds of things,” Sewell said.
Davis said as the pilot develops the GCC include “more people and more services” who align with the follow-up resources available to persons in crisis, such as the new partnership the GCC has with Toronto North Services Multi-Disciplinary Out Reach Team (M-DOT), a dedicated community-based agency that specializes in addressing housing needs, that will be available later this year.
Soon GCC crisis workers will be able to refer individuals to the team lead and case manager at M-DOT, Jenna Davies, who will help provide additional mental health services or housing needs for the individual. M-DOT is a team that supports vulnerable people on Toronto’s streets and in the city’s shelters.
Davies said she is “happy to take that referral pathway” so that “folks can get connected quickly” to the resources they need.
Rydzik said the pilot will be evaluated at the end of the year. If it is successful, there will be more funding allotted to the GCC.
“We’re hoping that it is going to be expanded a little further and then eventually it will be something that is available to every division in the city,” he said.