Toronto Mayor John Tory says it may be time for his city to appoint a dedicated officer of mental health to deal with a growing crisis that affects municipal governments across the country.
Whether it’s hoarders in public-housing buildings, or confrontations between police and people suffering from mental illness, holes in the mental-health system are behind many of the city’s toughest problems, Mr. Tory said in an interview.
“I call it a crisis,” Mr. Tory said. “... I don’t use the word often.”
The Mayor will raise the notion of appointing a special advocate to grapple with mental health in his remarks to a special summit on Monday that he has convened at the University of Toronto to discuss cities and mental health. He also hopes the event will help push governments toward producing a co-ordinated strategy on the issue.
Mayors from across the country, including Gregor Robertson of Vancouver and Bonnie Crombie of Mississauga, are to attend, along with Ontario’s Health Minister Helena Jaczek, frontline workers and mental-health experts.
New York City already has a kind-of mental-health czar: Attendees at Monday’s summit will hear from Gary Belkin, New York City’s executive deputy commissioner for mental health, who runs that city’s ThriveNYC mental-health initiative.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed more than US$850-million over four years to the plan, which includes training 250,000 people in “mental health first aid,” screening and treating pregnant mothers with depression, and sending special mental-health consultants into the city’s school system.
Toronto’s mayor has made the mental-health issue a talking point since early in his term. Late last year, Mr. Tory and the Big City Mayors’ Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities decided to make calling for a national strategy on mental health their next key focus for lobbying the federal government, after successfully making the case for billions in spending on transit and housing.
At the moment, while making some progress, Toronto itself lacks any sort of comprehensive plan on mental health, says one of the summit’s participants, Kwame McKenzie, a U of T psychiatry professor who heads the Wellesley Institute urban health policy think tank.
Even with the current use of special crisis intervention teams staffed by mental-health nurses and specially trained police officers, frontline police are still left to deal with people in crisis.
“Is everybody happy with the fact that police are our first response to a mental-health crisis?” Dr. McKenzie asked rhetorically. “The police aren’t.”
Dr. McKenzie also says mental health is not just a problem for governments. Employers must do more to help employees.
“If you’re an employer, it used to be that back pain was your most common reason for people being off sick,” Dr. McKenzie said. “In the knowledge economy, mental health is the biggest reason for being off sick.”
The summit will also hear from Poppy Jaman, the head of Mental Health First Aid England, a non-profit that teaches people how to spot and support someone suffering from mental illness.