For more than a year now, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver police chief Jim Chu have together called attention to what they describe as a “mental-health crisis”. On September 17, city council received a report that includes statistics supporting that characterization.
This week, B.C.’s health minister acknowledged that report and warned that the situation could get worse.
“Will we see those numbers continue to go up?” said Terry Lake, speaking to reporters on September 22. “I hope not. But at the same time, we recognize that around North America—it’s not just in British Columbia—you are seeing police departments having to deal with mental-health issues.”
On August 27, the Straight reported that during the first six months of 2014, Vancouver police made 1,470 apprehensions under Section 28 of the Mental Health Act, which permits officers to arrest and detain individuals deemed to have a mental disorder and to pose a threat to themselves or others.
That number represents an average of roughly eight apprehensions every day and marks a five-year high for the period of January 1 to June 30.
Vancouver hospitals have similarly noticed a cause for alarm. According to the report that went to council, Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital together registered a 43-percent increase in emergency mental-health visits between 2009 and 2013.
That document, called the “Mayor’s Task Force on Health and Addictions Phase 1 Report”, provides an update on recommendations the city made in September 2013. It notes that the province has not acted on a request that it add 300 beds for long-term psychiatric care for patients experiencing more complicated mental-health challenges.
Lake said that the province plans on creating more residential-care beds for the mentally ill, but it hasn’t yet determined exactly how many are required.
“At the end of the day, they may be right that we need 300,” he said. “But we don’t have confidence in that number at this time. But we’re certainly working though that and not ruling that out into the future.”
Lake emphasized that the province prefers community care as opposed to long-term institutionalization. (The city agrees, but suggests residential care may be required for a small group of individuals who struggle with severe addictions and/or mental illness [SAMIs].)
According to the mayor’s task force report, there are an estimated 2,000 “severely ill” people living in hotels in the Downtown Eastside who are not receiving the care they require for mental-health and addiction challenges.
Lake maintained that care is being provided.
“In the old days, the institutions were very visible but the patients were not,” he explained. “Today, the patients are very visible. They are in the community. And sometimes a lot of the supports that are there aren’t visible to the community.”
Lake noted that the province has increased the number of Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams working in Vancouver, and made more money available for regional authorities’ mental health-care programs.
“We understand that mental-health and addiction issues are important challenges in British Columbia,” he said. “We are dedicating an awful lot of resources to that challenge.”
The minister was responding to reporters’ questions while in North Vancouver to commemorate the completion of the Robert H.N. Ho Centre for Psychiatry and Education.
Lake described the HOpe Centre as a hub for community care. He invoked the memory of Kelty Patrick Dennehy, a 17-year-old man from Whistler who committed suicide in 2001, and emphasized the importance of prevention.
“If we can reach out to those families that are experiencing those challenges and provide resources to prevent them from having a catastrophe like that happen, that’s the goal,” Lake said. “Not to have more people hospitalized but to actually head that off.”
Chasing a crisis
Through September 2014 the Straight ran a series of articles exploring how Vancouver cares for the severely mentally ill.
Part one: Vancouver police still seeking help to prevent a mental-health crisis
Part two: Amid a mental-health crisis, Vancouver care providers revisit the debate on institutionalization
Part three: Vancouver service providers fail to get ahead of a mental-health crisis
Part four: B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation