Vancouver Police Department
Helping People Living with Mental Health Issues
BY CHIEF ADAM PALMER
© 2020 FrontLine Security (Vol 15, No 2)

Each year, approximately one in five people will experience a mental health problem or illness. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is a recognized leader in policing for its multifaceted and innovative approach to supporting persons living with mental health issues. Further, the VPD appreciates that persons living with mental health issues are, sadly, often targeted by offenders – resulting in them being 15 times more likely to be the victim of a crime. As such, ensuring that police services support persons living with mental health issues should be a critical component of the policing commitment to serving our communities.

For more than 40 years, the VPD has recognized the need to integrate mental health professionals into frontline police response in order to support persons living with mental health issues. While many police agencies are just now starting to deploy their officers with mental health professionals, the VPD was a leader in Canadian policing when, in 1978, we began deploying a dedicated mental health crisis response car through our Car 87 program. It partners a plain clothes officer with a registered psychiatric nurse to provide on-site mental health assessments and interventions to clients living in our community.

The need for a collaborative multi-agency approach to mental health was highlighted in 2008 by the VPD through our Lost in Transition report. This report highlighted how a lack of capacity in the mental health system was failing individuals living in our community and, as a result, was increasingly bringing persons living with mental illness into contact with the police. The report found that 31% of VPD incidents involved at least one person with mental health issues.

Based on the reality that one in five (20%) Canadians experience a mental health problem or illness, mental health was being over-represented in our workload at that time. To reduce mental health as a potential upstream driver of demand for police service, the VPD engaged health care partners to develop a number of innovative programs that integrate police and health services in order to improve the services provided to persons living with mental health issues.

In 2011, the VPD and local health authorities, Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, launched Project Link – a collaborative initiative to better coordinate these agencies’ common efforts to improve the quality of life for people living with mental health issues. Project Link brings together senior leaders from all three agencies as well as frontline staff. It laid the foundation for the numerous new collaborative programs, described below, that were launched in subsequent years.

In 2012, the VPD began a partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health as part of their five Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams. These teams are comprised of psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, vocational counsellors, occupational and recreational therapists, peer counsellors, and police. ACT teams focus on supporting the well-being of clients who are experiencing challenges related to community living and who have an extensive history of police involvement and high use of health services.

The goal of ACT teams is to provide a higher intensity and greater frequency of support to clients with severe mental health and/or substance use disorders, for whom traditional services have been unsuccessful. Impressively, a review of the program found that clients experienced a 52% reduction in negative police contacts, a 60% drop in mental health apprehensions, and a 66% drop in the these vulnerable clients being the victim of a crime.

Based on that success, the VPD and Vancouver Coastal Health collaborated in 2014 to create the Assertive Outreach Team (AOT). The AOT program includes psychiatrists, nurses, clinical supervisors, and police. AOT fills a gap in the continuum of care for individuals with moderate to severe substance use disorders and mental health issues who are experiencing functional and behavioural challenges related to community living.

AOT serves approximately 500 high-risk clients each year and is a proactive health care and police partnership that is unique to Vancouver. Through an “Early Warning System” that was developed via VPD and Vancouver Coastal Health collaboration and innovation, AOT proactively identifies persons living in the community who may be decompensating and, as a result, are the most at risk and in need of help. AOT staff then proactively engages these clients and offers them access to supports including counselling, psychiatric and addiction services.

Notably, a review of the AOT program found that clients experienced a 56% decrease in police calls for service, a 71% decline in client mental health apprehensions, and a 50% reduction in clients being the victim of a violent crime.

In 2017, the VPD initiated the creation of an innovative youth mental health program – Heer4Peers. This program was created in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver School Board, the City of Vancouver, and the Canadian Mental Health Association. 

Recognition of the reality that 50% of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 was a key driver in developing the Heer4Peers program. The program trains high school aged peer leaders who then go on to educate Grade 7 students in their community about the importance of mental wellness and available mental health supports.

Then in 2018, the VPD and Providence Health Care partnered to launch the Vancouver Police Foundation Transitional Care Centre at St. Paul’s Hospital. This Centre supports individuals with mental illness and/or substance use disorders who are discharged from St. Paul’s Hospital but require short-term shelter, assistance connecting to community services, or a safe environment following their discharge.

By providing these services, the Transitional Care Centre increases the community reintegration supports offered to persons living with mental illness and/or substance use disorders in an effort to maximize health outcomes for this vulnerable segment of our community.

I am proud of the progress that the VPD has made in increasing collaboration with our health partners and, as a result, improving the quality of life for persons living with mental health issues in our community. Impressively, due to the multifaceted programming we deliver with our partners, we have seen the percentage of calls involving mental health systematically decline over the past 13 years.

While mental health was previously over-represented in our calls for service and workload, it is now under-represented – with mental health being a factor in 16% of our calls for service today, down by nearly half since 2008 when it was 31%.

And while I am extremely proud of the work that our officers and civilian professional staff have achieved in their continued work with our local health partners, the VPD continues to look for additional ways to innovate and further health outcomes for those living with mental illness. 

We actively study jurisdictions across Canada and internationally to look for additional ways that we can further integrate our services with health professionals. This dedication to continuous improve­ment has led to the VPD being a recognized leader amongst Canadian and North American police agencies on its approach to mental health, its support of persons living in the community with mental illness, and its level of collaboration with health care professionals.

I hope that this discussion about VPD’s mental health programming provides FrontLine readers with a greater understanding of the multifaceted work we are doing in this critically important aspect of policing – ensuring the safety of persons living with mental illness. 
For readers who wish to learn more about our mental health programming, I encourage you to read our comprehensive VPD Mental Health Strategy and view its accompanying Pathway to Wellness video, which are available on our Mental Health Unit webpage at <www.vpd.ca

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Chief Constable Adam Palmer, 
Vancouver Police Department

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