N.S. government working to launch mental health crisis response team

The Nova Scotia government is in negotiations with an organization that would provide community-led, non-police crisis response services for mental health and addictions calls.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Brian Comer told reporters in Halifax on Thursday that the negotiations follow a tender that was issued earlier this year. The goal is to have the service in place in a pilot community by Sept. 1.

Comer said evidence shows there are cases where police, who are often the first to respond to such calls, lack the training and expertise those situations require. It’s a point police officers themselves have been making for years.

“There’s also sometimes where just the police presence itself can actually make a situation worse,” said Comer.

“[The pilot program] will take these sorts of things into account, but I would say this has been an ongoing issue across the province for quite some time.”

Significant increase in crisis calls

According to the tender documents, there has been a significant increase in mental health crisis calls since 2019. There is a “strong desire” to shift away from police responding to those calls, in favour of a community-based response, the documents say.

Such models help reduce visits to emergency departments, justice system involvement and improve access to care for people in crisis, according to the tender. The pilot is to be located in an area without a crisis response team and needs to provide 24/7 care from a service location and mobile service that can meet people where they are.

Supports offered will include wellness checks, short-term crisis counselling and de-escalation, service referrals and providing advocacy and accompaniment to emergency departments, police stations or other community organizations.

The service should be able to expand in its second and third years, or provide a model that could be replicated by other organizations in other parts of the province.

A man in a suit and tie stands in front of microphones while people stand to either side of him.
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill speaks to reporters on Thursday in Halifax. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

The news comes while some police departments have expressed concern about officers being tied up in emergency departments waiting with patients.

The board of police commissioners for the Town of Bridgewater recently wrote to the provincial government to say it plans to send invoices when officers stay with a patient in the emergency department for more than two hours.

The requirement for police to wait with a patient until they are medically cleared is a provision in the Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act. Comer would not comment on the invoices because they’ve yet to be received, but he said the concerns from police are valid and he’s prepared to work with them on the issue.

“We’re trying to address the root cause of the issues,” he said.

A woman stands in front of microphones while other people stand around her.
NDP Leader Claudia Chender’s party has long called for the creation of a mental health crisis response team. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Opposition leaders welcomed the news that an agency other than the police will be established to focus on mental health crisis calls.

“We need our police and our RCMP to be dealing with criminal issues, not mental health issues in hospitals,” Liberal Leader Zach Churchill told reporters.

“We need to have more mental health supports, more social workers to do that.”

NDP Leader Claudia Chender’s party has long called for the creation of a mental health crisis response team.

Chender said police are the first to acknowledge that they are not the people best suited to respond to a mental health crisis.

“But there are teams that are trained to do that and we should be supporting and deploying those teams to take the pressure off law enforcement and, in some cases, to take the pressure off of emergency rooms and medical staff and to — most importantly — respond with appropriateness and sensitivity and care to Nova Scotians who are in distress.”