A City Where Mental Health Isn’t for Policing

In Toronto, a suite of programs are embracing a non-coercive, person-centered approach to mental health.

mental health crisis workers

Amanda and Akin, Mobile Crisis Team workers, stand in front of a crisis vehicle. “All we carry is identification in case people want to see it,” says Amanda. “Dressing in regular clothes with minimal markings on our vehicle allow us to have a more human-to-human connection, aiming to minimize power imbalances and reduce stigma.” (Photo courtesy of Gerstein Crisis Centre)

Cities too often respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis with carceral systems. Toronto’s Gerstein Crisis Centre provides an alternative and proves that when people have access to care, they’ll reach out when they need help. Increased access can lead to more opportunities for problem-solving and less crises and punishment.

Next City Reporter Maylin Tu first reported this story and says that the center is doing things differently by respecting people’s autonomy and acknowledging the power dynamics at play when responding to people’s needs. Tu adds that, in some ways, the programs offered at Gerstein act as an intervention that helps to reduce people experiencing crises.

In this episode, we also hear from Susan Davis, the center’s executive director, and Olivia Ensign, senior advocate and researcher for the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, which published a case study that outlined the success of the Gerstein Centre’s work. Upon publication, HRW noted that it hopes the document “inspires action among and across mental health service providers, service users, policymakers, and human rights and mental health advocates on providing community-based and rights-respecting support to people experiencing mental health crises.”

What the Gerstein Centre is doing provides a model for what’s possible. Davis says that one of the most essential cores of what they do is listen.

“Unfortunately, right now, when people are reaching out for mental health care, they cannot access the services that they need, either in a timely fashion or the correct services that they need,” Davis says. “One of the things that is important about that is that people need to be trusted about what it is that’s going on for them. And when they reach out for care, they need to be believed.”

To learn more about the Gerstein Crisis Centre’s non-coercive, person-centered approach to addressing mental health, listen to this episode below or subscribe to the Next City podcast on Apple, Spotify or Goodpods.

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