Mental health car project nixed

Interior Health has decided not to partner with Nelson Police Department to create a dedicated mental health car.

Interior Health has decided not to partner with Nelson Police Department to create a dedicated mental health car aimed at keeping people with mental illness out of hospital emergency rooms and jail cells.

Nelson Police Chief Wayne Holland has been calling for the creation of a dedicated mental health car — staffed by a constable and a psychiatric nurse — since he joined the local department two and a half years ago. He says the project would have been nearly cost neutral and had tremendous support from community leaders. But he needed Interior Health’s blessing to have one of their nurses involved in the pilot project.

“It’s very disappointing to have one key stakeholder stand in the way of us going ahead with this,” Holland said, noting it took two years for Interior Heath to get back to him with their decision. “We are completely ready to go with this and could have had it up and operating right away.

“We thought, at the very least, we’d be able to use that as a transitional initiative until Interior Health is able to role out a more permanent, long term solution.”

The Vancouver Police Department, where Holland worked before coming to Nelson, has been running a mental health car with great success since the mid-1980s.

But Cheryl Whittleton, Interior Health’s community integrated health services administrator, isn’t sure it would be successful here.

“The lower mainland car — I know it’s successful, I know it works, but it’s a bigger population base,” Whittleton said.

Interior Health started its own mental health car pilot project in Kamloops less than a year ago and wants to wait and evaluate that project before it will consider rolling them out in other communities. Whittleton had no estimate of how long that might take.

In the meantime, she said Nelson already has support workers based out of local shelters and at the Kootenay Lake Hospital who are in regular communication with the police and can provide services to people with mental illnesses.

“There’s always more that could be done for any population, but it always boils down to resources,” she said. “We need to ensure we’re using our resources wisely.”

According to Police Chief Holland, between 18 and 20 per cent of calls Nelson Police Department respond to involve someone with a mental health issue. That’s about 1,000 calls per year. It’s not unusual for officers to be dealing with the same individuals three or four times per week.

“We’re not really helping them,” Holland said of those individuals his officers are repeatedly picking up. “We’re putting them through a revolving door — dropping them off at Kootenay Lake Hospital or locking them in a cell — that’s no good for them and we know there’re better options.”

In Vancouver, the mental health car provides on site counseling for individuals, which means they can then be dropped off with a family member or other support person. Holland maintains this is the best model for Nelson and plans to continue to work with the numerous organizations in the community who agree with him, in hopes they will be able to persuade Interior Health to get behind them.

“We need help now. We needed it years ago, even before I came here,” Holland said.

“This is one of the few times in my career I’ve ever seen a community come together and everyone — from average Joe and Jane citizens in the supermarket, to tourists, to mental health professionals on the street, the chamber of commerce, council, the police board, the Nelson business association, Gyro group, the Rotary Club, Kootenay Lake Hospital administration — they’re all committed to working together to make it happen.”

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