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City of Ottawa unveils pilot-project to divert mental-health, substance use calls from police

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Professionals and outreach workers could soon respond to mental health and substance use-related calls in the city of Ottawa, instead of police officers, as part of a new pilot project.

The city has unveiled plans for a three-year program called the "Safer Alternatives for Mental Health and Substance Use Crises Response", which would see fewer mental well-being and substance use calls handled by police and more follow-up and monitoring to offer ongoing support to people in need.

A report for the Community Services Committee meeting on June 27 says the plan will include the city establishing a non-911, alternate call intake, triage and dispatch system for mental health and substance-related calls. It will also establish a "community-based civilian-led multi-disciplinary mobile crisis response team," with social workers, nurses, case managers, psychologists and outreach workers.

"A lot of work has gone into this. We've consulted with the Guiding Council on Mental Health and we've looked at what's been done in other cities," Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said in a video posted on Twitter.

"We're going to pilot a new service; a new service that will send mental health professionals to mental health calls."

If approved by Council, the pilot project will be launched in one neighbourhood in Ottawa, before expanding to other areas of the city. The mayor says the city has worked with Ottawa police and paramedics in developing the proposal.

"There will be an alternative number to 911 that residents can call, and there will be a team of skilled professionals who are specially trained to offer compassionate support tailored to individuals in a mental health or substance abuse crisis," Sutcliffe said.

The city of Ottawa hopes to launch the non-911 program and community-based response team in the summer of 2024.

The head of the Ottawa Mission supports the proposed new program.

"We are heavily dependent here at the Ottawa Mission on the services of the Ottawa Police Service," Peter Tilley said Saturday.

"But to have an enhancement, a compliment service where people can call mental health experts to work alongside the police and deal with those situations, we think it's a great initiative."

Community groups, elected officials and residents have called on Ottawa police and the city to develop a new strategy for mental health and substance use calls, saying calls should be diverted from police to trained professionals.

In 2021, the Ottawa Police Service established a 'Guiding Council' to develop its new mental health response strategy, looking to improve how police respond to mental health calls. The Guiding Council reviewed Ottawa's current 911 system and alternative responses in other cities.

Staff say "several important gaps" were identified through the evaluation of the current model, including police and paramedics are the "only agencies with the resources, staffing capacity and operating hours to send real-time resources to an immediate crisis." It adds the current police and paramedic programs specializing in mental health "do not have the resources to respond to most crisis calls in real-time."

Council approved Ottawa's first 'Community Safety and Well-being Plan,' with six priorities including mental well-being. The desired outcomes were:

  • Fewer mental well-being and substance use crisis situations handled by the Ottawa Police Service
  • More follow-up and monitoring to offer ongoing support
  • More mental well-being crisis situations mitigated before reaching a crisis point
  • Increased access to harm reduction and overdose prevention supports and services

Now, the city has unveiled the new "Safer Alternatives for Mental Health and Substance Use Crises Response" program. Here is a look at the recommendations:

Non-911 number

A non-911 number to intake, triage and dispatch calls for mental health and substance use crisis support and services will be launched in the third quarter of 2024.

"This provides an option to call a non-911 number directly by the residents seeking mental health and substance use crisis support," staff say. "In addition, the Guiding Council would explore a specified set of calls going to 911 for mental health and substance use response which could also be diverted to the non-911 services for assessment, triage and dispatch of the response teams."

The non-911 phone number is dubbed a 'No wrong door' approach, providing people access to a range of response services for mental health and substance use crises. Callers to 911 seeking help would be transferred to the alternate number mental health team for assessment.

24-7 community-based response team

The city of Ottawa will establish a community-based, civilian-led multi-disciplinary mobile crisis response team to offer "24/7 trauma-informed and culturally appropriate crisis response service."

Staff say the multi-disciplinary mobile crisis response team will be made up of mental health professionals and outreach workers, including social workers, nurses, case managers and psychologists.

"The response team will be managed through community partner agencies that in addition to the mobile crises team can provide individuals with wrap-around supports providing a continuum of care with pathways to services," the report says.

Staff say the Guiding Council for Mental Health and Addictions recommends the first phase launch in one-geographic location. The possible neighbourhood for the pilot project is not named in the report.

"This recommendation is based on understanding the complexity of launching a city-wide program to start and the financial investment required for such a response to be sufficiently resourced to be successful," the report says. "Given this, an appropriately resourced first phase in a geographic region creates time for a fulsome evaluation and learning to then inform an expansion of the community-based 24/7 response."

The city would issue a call for proposals for community-based non-profit agencies to lead the response team.

The proposed pilot project will cost $2.5 million in the first year, which includes funding for an agency to operate the non-911 number and for the community-lead agency to respond to calls.

The city will ask Ottawa police to seek funding through other levels of government to support the new strategy to respond to mental health and substance use calls.

The 613-819 Black Hub supports the pilot project to divert mental health calls away from police, but says police should have no role in the project.

"The money for this should be coming from the police budget and the police should have no role in seeking funding for this program," Robin Browne, 613-819 Black Hub co-lead, said.

With files from CTV News Ottawa's Jackie Perez

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