Working at the Community Policing Centre in Hastings Sunrise, our staff and volunteers see more and more people on the streets who live with mental disorders such as schizophrenia or drug-induced psychosis.
Most encounters don’t necessarily pose a threat to the people involved, but supporting people with mental illness can be difficult and confusing. The HSCPC’s goal has been to help people in mental distress as best we can, so we have spent more time on educating ourselves about available resources.
I recently had the chance to spend a shift with Constable Ian Mayne of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and Kyle Andersen of Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). They are part of the VPD Assertive Outreach Team (AOT)that provides short-term transitional support for clients with complex mental health issues.
On a drizzly January afternoon, I meet Ian in his office on the 6thfloor at Graveley Street, a space the Mental Health Unit shares with Youth Services and the School Liaison Unit. I get a tour of the floor and discover the offices of members who staff Car 86, a program that deals with child protection issues, and Car 87, the “Mental Health Car”.
I had been familiar with these two programs prior to my ride-along– but when Ian stops to explain a very comprehensive chart of VPD members, assigned teams and clients they serve, I realize that the issue is much more complex than I expected.
The shift starts at the nurse’s office on West Broadway where the AOT goes through the long list of current clients, discussing their needs and deciding on a path moving forward with them. Hitting the road in an unmarked police car for our next appointment, we meet with a young man who lives in a single room occupancy building and has difficulties accessing his medication at a local pharmacy for the hallucinations and delusions he is experiencing.
“Many clients get much better once they have been assessed by a psychiatrist, receive appropriate medication and have a support system in place,” says Kyle. Our second stop is a shelter in the heart of the Downtown Eastside where Ian and Kyle inquire about a female client who has missed previous appointments with the AOT and whose whereabouts are unknown.
“Unfortunately, some people lose housing due to severe mental illness and then there is nothing left to catch them,” says Ian. “We have an ethical obligation to help, but sometimes it merely feels like putting a band-aid on problems. There are days that we mostly spend looking for our clients because they don’t have permanent housing.”
We keep circling the DTES looking for the female client. We don’t find her, so we make our way to the Granville district which has also experienced a dramatic uptick in homelessness, drug use and mental health related incidents.
The number of people with mental health or substance use related problems and those living in poverty has been on the rise in B.C. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 17% of British Columbians are experiencing mental illness or substance use issue today. Roughly 75% of Downtown Eastside residents in Vancouver struggle with major mental illness.
Stigma and discrimination attached to mental illnesses presents a serious barrier, not only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community. To improve the quality of life for people who suffer from mental illness, substance use and addiction, the VPD and VCH have been collaborating since 2011. Together, they operate two specialized teams: the Assertive Outreach Team (AOT) and the Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACT).
The AOT has four psychiatric outreach nurses, two nurses who work in the office, one social worker and three psychiatric doctors assigned to them. The AOT regularly connects with up to 30clients at a time, and up to 150 clients per year, as they go from hospital or jail to a community service provider to receive ongoing support.
“Our goal is to provide meaningful interventions by building a trusting rapport with our clients,” says Kyle. “We connect them to long-term mental health teams to ensure they have access to regular assessments and psychiatric medication, primary care services if needed and collaborate with housing agencies, provincial ministries and the justice system as part of our holistic approach.”
Adds Ian: “Most of our clients have a history of police involvement as a result of their addictions and mental health disorders. We focus on improving their quality of life and reducing incidents of violence and self-harm so that they can stay in the community without being a risk to themselves or others.”
If clients need more assistance, the Assertive Outreach Team can bridge relations to the ACT, which is a full-service mental health program that provides long-term psychosocial support to clients with high-risk behavior. “There are plenty of initiatives and partnerships to support people with mental disorders but the number of individuals who need help is growing while funding is not. We need more supportive housing with knowledgeable staff and easier access to treatment options. Communication between institutions and cities needs to get better, too,” Ian suggests.
“We are making headway with a good number of people but we can only do so much,” adds Kyle.
Having spent an afternoon with Ian and Kyle, I will certainly bring more awareness and knowledge back to the CPC, knowing that there are useful resources available to effectively help people with mental illnesses.
I was impressed by their dedication and passion for their jobs and the clients they serve. As I part ways with Ian and Kyle later in the day, both mention that they are thankful, even with finite resources, to be in a career that leaves ample space to change lives and perceptions, one person at a time.