New Indigenous-led hotline offers targeted mental health support

A new Indigenous-led crisis team hopes to replace 911 in Toronto for those needing mental health support or non-emergency wellness checks.

The team, comprised of crisis support workers and community resource specialists, is available to downtown Toronto residents through a pilot project with the 211 hotline, which people can call for both virtual and in-person support at any time.

“Our response is dependent on what the individual needs, but we show up, we walk alongside them, we talk to them and we de-escalate the situation,” Saige McMahon, the director of the Indigenous-led pilot, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

The downtown Toronto pilot project has been named Kamaamwizme wii Naagidiwendiiying, chosen in collaboration with Indigenous language and knowledge keepers, McMahon says. It means “coming together to heal/look after/take care of each other,” according to the city of Toronto’s website.

McMahon says that the team has been trained by the Toronto-based Gerstein Crisis Centre on suicide training intervention, harm reduction, CPR, first aid and Naloxone overdose, and they have nurses on staff who can offer more medical support.

But their main priority is to offer longer-term follow-up support to the community.

“We are not a shelter, but we are prepared to take care of those basic life needs first,” she said, adding the team offers support with housing, medical support referrals, and other services.

For short-term care, the team is collaborating with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Gerstein Crisis Centre, which have emergency beds for those who urgently need them.

McMahon says that a major way that their service differs from that of the police is that it centres on the needs of the individuals and is completely consensual.

“Our service is non-aggressive and non-forced and so, if an individual is declining our services, we can’t continue with the service. We aren’t like the police in that once we’re called to a location we have to stay there and that we have to remove the individual against their will,” she said.

“But, what we do is really work with that individual. (We) try to de-escalate them, try and get them somewhere safer and more comfortable. Sometimes, that can be a really quick call but other times it could take four hours or even longer.”

This crisis pilot is one of four Toronto Community Crisis Service teams, some of which debuted earlier this year, and is a collaboration between Findhelp, which manages the 211 lines across the province, 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, the ENAGB Indigenous Youth Agency, and Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre.

However, it is still unknown if any of these programs could expand beyond Toronto’s downtown or if there are similar plans underway in other provinces. 

Canada doesn’t currently have a centralized mental health crisis line across the country that bypasses police and connects those in need with professionals who can help them.

South of the border, American authorities launched a new 988 mental health hotline in July which, once fully operational, will offer all American residents access to trained mental health counsellors instead of law enforcement.

The House of Commons unanimously voted to establish a three-digit suicide prevention number in Canada in 2020, however, it’s since been in the hands of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Statistics Canada reports that approximately 11 people die by suicide in Canada each day.

“Police don’t have the capacity to provide holistic support for individuals in crisis. More teams like ours are needed to make the community feels safer,” McMahon said.

With files from Canadian Press

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