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Effective Crisis Management Without Police

The Gerstein Crisis Centre is a 24/7 support community and mobile team for people in Toronto experiencing mental health or addiction crises. The Centre staff is not made up of police, doctors, or social workers. Instead, many of them are crisis survivors who bring firsthand experience to their interactions with people who reach out for help. Trained in non-violent de-escalation and focused on helping people find workable solutions, Gerstein workers have gained an excellent reputation in health care and legal communities since the center opened 30 years ago.

Their intervention with Kaola Baird illustrates many of the reasons that their methods are successful. Baird suffered from deep depression, and as her illness worsened, she lost her job and faced eviction. At the point of suicide, she reached out to the Gerstein Centre. The crisis worker who answered her call recommended she meet with her at a nearby coffee shop. She and a co-worker arrived in an unmarked car and wore civilian clothes. As far as anyone knew, it was just a normal meet-up among friends. They sat and listened to Baird’s distressed outpouring for over an hour, and then together, they worked out a plan that included a short-term stay at the Centre and therapy to help her move forward. Eight years later, she admits to still struggling but has moved beyond crisis and now helps at the Gerstein Centre herself. She says the intervention changed her life.

The Centre was launched in 1989 by Dr. Reva Gerstein, a psychologist and social justice advocate who recently died at age 102. Her initiative was intended to meet the growing need for community mental health services after the mass de­institutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1970s. As patients were released into society, community treatments were never fully funded, and a chronic shortage of in-patient beds has plagued Canada and the U.S. for decades. Without proper support networks, it is all too easy for the mentally ill to fall into a cycle of incarceration.

The growth of police agencies also put officers in the position of first responders to mental health crises, and the emergence of this new role has had tragic consequences.

Deadly Encounters

According to the most recent data, more than half the people killed by police suffered from mental illness or addiction. In the U.S., a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with a history of mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police. Violent police interactions with the mentally ill, people of color, or those who are otherwise poor and at the margins of society have led to increased calls to take police out of the equation if possible.

Programs like the Gerstein Centre offer a model for making that change possible. The Toronto Police Services Board recently approved a measure for making more use of the Centre as part of an 81-point plan to address systemic racism and improve handling of mental health crises. The increase in services demands more funding, as highlighted by the stress put on the Centre’s resources following a surge of crisis calls during COVID lockdowns. Most of the Centre’s $5.2 million budget comes from the provincial government, but advocates say if the city is serious about change it could channel a portion of its $1 billion police budget to the program.

Centre director Susan Davis promises that regardless of whether more funding comes or not, “We’ll step up and try to do what we can.” 


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