Vancouver police report confirms shortfalls in mental health services

A report released last month by Vancouver police says between a third and half of all police calls involve the mentally ill – pointing to a serious gap in mental health services in our province.

The report estimates time dealing with mental health related incidents is equivalent to 90 full time police offers at an annual cost of nine million dollars. This estimate is for the city of Vancouver alone and does not include indirect policing costs or costs to other agencies such as the ambulance service, hospitals or the court system.

In its analysis, the Vancouver Police Department says there is a lack of resources in the mental health system as well as poor communication between mental health resources and particularly inadequate services for those dealing with both a mental illness and an addiction.

In previous columns I have talked about the effects of de-institutionalization of the mentally ill – a process which began in the 1970s with the closing of many mental health institutions in favour of community mental health services.

In theory, the mentally ill population would be better served if they could live independently or in group homes and access necessary mental health services in the community. Unfortunately, after many institutions closed, the government failed to fund the required increase in community mental health services.

Today’s situation is the direct result of this failure to follow through.

We are now in a mental health crisis with many ill people fending for themselves and getting lured to areas like Vancouver’s downtown Eastside where they go for cheap housing and end up getting involved in criminal activity and being taken advantage of by drug dealers, pimps and scum landlords.

Although the recent report deals specifically with the Vancouver area, the shortages in mental health services are province-wide.

Community mental health services must be increased dramatically to adequately serve the many people who are currently falling through the cracks. In addition to out-patient services, our province needs to re-open some facilities for long term in-patient care of those who are most ill and not able to function on their own.

Vancouver’s report recommends such a facility to help the approximately 500 individuals currently living in Vancouver’s downtown eastside with chronic mental illness and disabling addictions.

Some funding is already set aside for this purpose – the provincial government set aside $41 million in 2002 for a new mental health care facility in Vancouver, but the city’s health authority claims it needs another five million dollars before it can begin building.

All of the back and forth over numbers is only serving to delay a much needed service while hundreds of sick people are living in squalid conditions or on the street.

Other recommendations in the Vancouver report which would be beneficial across the province include increased services for people dealing with both addiction and mental health issues, increased supportive housing, more coordination and communication between services and urgent response centres where individuals can go to be directed to appropriate support services.

All of these measures would go a long way toward easing the current mental health crisis in BC.


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