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People walk through a back alley in the downtown eastside area of Vancouver, December, 23, 2012. Police say 21 per cent of their calls involve someone who is mentally ill, and apprehensions under the Mental Health Act have risen 16 per cent between 2010 and 2012. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
People walk through a back alley in the downtown eastside area of Vancouver, December, 23, 2012. Police say 21 per cent of their calls involve someone who is mentally ill, and apprehensions under the Mental Health Act have risen 16 per cent between 2010 and 2012. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

B.C. mental-health plan includes outreach team, group homes Add to ...

The B.C. government has announced a new action plan for patients with mental-health challenges, a response to a declaration by Vancouver’s mayor and police chief that the city faces a crisis in handling people with severe, untreated mental illness.

The program announced Wednesday includes a new outreach team to work in the city, a new nine-to-12 bed psychiatric assessment unit at St. Paul’s Hospital and five new “high-intensity” group homes.

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But Health Minister Terry Lake brushed aside suggestions he was conceding to Mayor Gregor Robertson and Chief Constable Jim Chu.

“This is an example of two levels of government working together collaboratively,” said Mr. Lake, acknowledging there were “gaps” in treating some vulnerable people.

Mr. Lake noted the funding isn’t solely directed at Vancouver – $12-million of $20-million for the new measures will be directed to regional health authorities across the province so they can bolster their services.

Earlier this fall, Mr. Lake sounded a skeptical note about City of Vancouver concerns, noting on one occasion he wanted to see additional research before pushing “panic buttons” and handing out more money. But on Wednesday, Mr. Lake was accompanied at the announcement by Mr. Robertson, who in September announced the city and its police department were facing a “public-health crisis” in dealing with the severely mentally ill.

Mr. Robertson saluted Mr. Lake as well as Premier Christy Clark, who the mayor said has been especially attentive to his concerns.

The mayor has raised alarms about soaring admissions at St. Paul’s Hospital of individuals with severe mental illnesses, the demand on police to deal with the mentally ill and increasing cases of violent acts by the mentally ill.

“I am really pleased to see these immediate term actions. There’s no doubt there’s a much bigger piece to move here, but the minister’s commitments are solid,” Mr. Robertson said. “We’ll need to follow through on those next steps.”

Other measures announced Wednesday include a plan to better position the 100-bed Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction to accommodate patients who require longer-term, high-intensity care. But the plan only makes room for 20 new beds, falling far short of the 300 new long-term and secure mental-health treatment beds Vancouver had been demanding.

Mr. Lake said additional money will only go so far in resolving outstanding issues in the difficult file.

“I would caution against anyone who thinks there’s a simple solution, a way you can just pour money into something and solve this,” he said. “We have to be very thoughtful about how we plan to look after this population.”

Mr. Lake said he is proposing a committee of Vancouver stakeholders, including the police and city, to look at the issue for “evidence-based” strategies that would guide next steps in this area.

“I think it’s wrong to put the number first before you get the evidence that leads you there,” he said.

Chief Chu said he was especially pleased by plans for an outreach team based at St. Paul’s Hospital that would follow patients into the community to ensure they stick with their treatment plans.

St. Paul’s emergency room has seen a 43-per-cent increase over three years in dealing with those with severe mental-health issues or addiction.

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

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