Mayor, Chief Chu call for urgent investments to help those with severe mental illness

September 13, 2013 | Safer Communities

MAYOR'S REMARKS, WITH CHIEF CONSTABLE JIM CHU
Vancouver Police Department, September 13th 2013
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>> Click here for the full release from the Vancouver Police Department

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Good morning, thank you for being here.

Today, the Chief and I are issuing a public call around a situation that has reached a crisis point in Vancouver.

It’s one that we have grappled with for a number of years, but it has escalated to the point that we need to go public and state clearly that, today, Vancouver is embroiled in a public health crisis due to untreated, severe mental illness.

Fifteen years ago, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside faced a public health crisis due to a spike in HIV/AIDS infections and drug overdoses. It led to collaboration between different levels of government and health authorities that resulted in steady progress and has saved hundreds of lives.

We are now in a situation where there are hundreds of people with severe but untreated mental illnesses that are a high risk to both themselves and residents of the city. This is on par with, if not more serious than, what Vancouver faced over a decade ago.

Since January 2012, the VPD has identified 96 serious incidents ranging from suicides to random, violent attacks inflicted upon innocent members of the public.

Let’s be clear: these are entirely preventable incidents. They involve people who have serious mental illnesses and are not getting the health care, support and treatment they deserve.

The gaps in the system are putting their lives at risk, and endangering the lives of innocent victims of random attacks. This then puts an enormous personal strain on the friends and family members of all of these people.

This is also now a massive burden on our front-line first responders. The police should not, and cannot, continue to be the first point of contact for people with a severe mental illness. But that is what’s happening, and it’s wrong.

What makes this such a difficult issue is that the Chief and I want to make clear the gravity and urgency of this crisis, without unfairly stigmatizing people.

So it is important to put this in context. This is a very, very small segment of the growing population of people who deal with mental illness.

I have friends and family who have a mental illness, and I know that likely many of you in this room do too. And you know that the overwhelming majority of people with a mental illness are not a threat to anyone.

But as both Mayor and Chair of the Police Board, I can’t stay silent when I see an escalating number of violent incidents, and a growing gap in the health and social safety net. It is a miracle that many of the people involved in these random attacks have not died.

The City and VPD have invested significantly in outreach teams, VPD mental health units, extensive staff training, new supportive housing, and reviewed our policies to ensure we’re helping people in distress.

But there comes a point when you have to say ‘we don’t have the tools to help these people. It is not the responsibility of the city government.’ That’s why we’re saying we need the provincial and federal governments to urgently step up.

We have five recommendations, four of which have been previously endorsed by the VPD, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, and the City of Vancouver, for what needs to happen.

Implementing these will have an immediate positive impact on quality of life for people suffering from severe, untreated mental illness and will greatly reduce the risk of people being put in harm’s way.

Here's what we need to prevent this public health crisis from spiraling out of control:

  1. 300 long-term and secure mental health treatment beds.
  2. More staffing at BC Housing buildings to support tenants who have psychiatric issues.
  3. More significant support through Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams for patients living in the community, including those residing in market housing.
  4. An enhanced form of urgent care (a crisis centre) that can ensure consistent and expert care of individuals in crisis situations, located at a Vancouver hospital. AND
  5. The creation of a joint VPD-VCH Assertive Outreach Team for supporting mentally ill persons who do not yet qualify for ACT teams.

These are smart, strategic investments that will save lives and reduce the burden on our front line responders. They involve collaboration, a relentless focus, and a commitment to seeing them through.

And we’re here today to say to the BC and Canadian government: the City and VPD are ready and willing to work with you on this.

That’s where the lessons from the 1990s come in. Next weekend will be the 10 year anniversary of Insite. It emerged from a unique collaboration between all levels of government and stakeholders. It took years. It took dedicated investment and commitment.

But we know how it turned out. Overdoses plummeted, HIV rates dropped, more people got into treatment, lives were saved.

This is a very difficult situation that's been overlooked for far too long. We’ve faced a major public health crisis before. We turned things around, and we can - and must - do it again.

I’ll now turn it over to Chief Chu to outline the VPD’s work and the realities they face on the frontlines.

>> Click here for the full release from the Vancouver Police Department