Nazanin Moghadami: We must end this mental-health crisis with compassion, not confrontation

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      By Nazanin Moghadami

      There is an invisible health crisis exhausting our society. It has taken many lives, and those it does not take, it nonetheless devastates. The authorities struggle to contain it, finding themselves ill-equipped to deal with something they’ve only begun to understand.

      I’m not talking about COVID-19, although the pandemic is undoubtedly making matters worse. The crisis I’m talking about is mental health. More than anything else, that’s what drove me to stand as a candidate in this provincial election.

      We can do so much better. I see the consequences of our system’s failure every day. For over 10 years now, I have worked with people with diverse experiences—survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, newcomers and refugees, QTBIMPOC and LGBTQ+ folks, those living in poverty, those struggling with addiction, and those with precarious immigration status. What is common between most people I work for? That although calling 911 might be their only way of getting help if they’re in crisis, it is also unthinkable.

      Currently, I’m a clinical supervisor at a sexual-assault centre, and half of my time is also spent supporting LGBTQ refugees in B.C. who have fled from prosecution. I have worked alongside grassroots and community stakeholders on a motion brought to the City of Vancouver by Coun. Jean Swanson that asked for more safety for residents to access services without fear of deportation

      Over and over, as frontline workers and community organizers, we hear the need for social services that are not dependent upon the police. As a psychotherapist, I can attest that it would serve everyone, including first responders and police officers, if contacting the police is not the only way to get mental-health support.

      The police undoubtedly play an important role in our society, but they are also an incredibly blunt instrument. Imagine how damaging it is for an already traumatized young person, in the midst of a mental-health episode, to then be handcuffed by police officers and led away. Imagine the fear that stops temporary foreign workers or immigrant caregivers from involving the police in a family crisis.

      Then there is sexual assault. The complexities of these cases mean police are particularly ill-suited to respond. Research shows that 70 perent of victims of spousal violence and 93 percent of victims of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse never spoke to authorities about their experiences, Privacy concerns, fear of reprisal, and a desire to protect the offender are common reasons why family-violence victims do not report to the authorities.

      Police shouldn’t be the first point of contact for responding to crisis. They should only be called if absolutely necessary. We need a fresh crop of trained, safe, reassuring mental-health professionals. We need responders who are adept at defusing the situation, not inflaming it. Vulnerable people and their families need  someone they can call without fear of detainment, persecution, or deportation.

      Such alternative programs are real. They have already been rolled out in several U.S. cities, for example Oakland and Denver. It creates healthier communities and healthier neighborhoods, where people’s needs are met. Such schemes also save cities money. In Eugene, Oregon, which introduced social-service responders 30 years ago, it is estimated that these unarmed crisis workers have saved taxpayers an average of $8 million on public safety and $14 million on hospital costs.

      When deciding who to stand for in this election, the B.C. Greens was an easy choice. They are the only party with real solutions to the health crisis raging around us.

      You may have read that the Greens will spend $1 billion over a four-year cycle on responding to mental-health issues. While that level of funding is amazing, I’m even more excited by the type of systemic change they will invest in.

      Greens will bring mental health firmly into the medical services plan (MSP). They will establish mental-health treatment options for people struggling with depression and anxiety. They back early intervention via youth mental-health initiatives. They will boost counselling outreach for the homeless community. And they will create community-based options for responding to people with mental- health issues and their families.

      There are many similarities here to the argument for the decriminalization of drugs. Our province has access to a guideline and a robust report written last year by our top health officer, Dr.Bonnie Henry. When you take away the fear of punishment, people start to seek and receive healing. It is time to decriminalize trauma. We need to put the care back into mental-health care. The way we do that is by empowering those striving to change our ailing system, by putting them close to the heart of power.