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Toronto is changing the way 911 works to better support those struggling with mental health

It's been more than a year since the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the 29-year-old woman who fell from a High Park balcony during an encounter with police that had been called by family to help her through a mental health crisis.

The incident was just one of many in which BIPOC and/or those struggling with mental health issues at home and abroad lost their lives while dealing with officers, and led to protests, calls to defund police, and demands for better responses to such situations, including dispatching unarmed mental health professionals and community workers.

As the Toronto Police Service assessed how it could confront any inherent anti-Black racism among its ranks, it also considered how it could change the way it responds to those in crisis, ultimately making the decision this week to try out a new pilot project that will change how 911 calls are handled in the city.

Over the course of the next year, select calls to emergency services will be redirected from police to the Gerstein Crisis Centre, a tenured organization that has specially trained people more equipped to deal with residents in specific types of distress. 

The centre can send social workers and other non-police responders, offer referrals to third-party resources, and can also team up with the cops for more well-rounded and comprehensive responses if police are found to be necessary (such as in the case of Korchisnki-Paquet, in which a weapon was initially reported).

TPS Deputy Chief Peter Yuen called the new partnership a way of "addressing an appeal from the mental health community to explore alternative models of mental health crisis response" in a statement on the subject released Thursday.

Representatives from the Gerstein Centre reiterated in the same release that they strongly support a model in which "the earliest intervention for mental health needs are provided by a mental health worker rather than the police service," leading to more appropriate support and cutting out unnecessary police involvement.

The program is similar to one being launched by the city itself that will send members of one of four crisis support teams to respond to the same types of 911 calls starting in 2022.

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquezx

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