With darker days now here, Vancouver Island first responders are concerned about the mental health of their communities and are sounding the alarm after seeing a dramatic increase in calls.
“Mental health is a significant part of society,” explained Brad Cameron, B.C. Emergency Health Services superintendent of patient care delivery for Greater Victoria.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the community is under constant pressure – both emotionally and financially – and the West Shore’s first responders are seeing its impact.
B.C. Ambulance Service started seeing a spike in mental health calls during the summer months – when people weren’t able to take their typical vacations. That spike hasn’t subsided.
“I am bracing,” said Insp. Todd Preston, Officer in Charge of the West Shore RCMP. “I don’t think that’s going to get any better.”
This August, the detachment responded to 143 mental health calls, up from 84 in August 2019. Well-being calls also jumped to 93 in August, up from 53 in August 2019.
From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, West Shore RCMP saw a 24 per cent increase in calls relating to mental health with a jump to 1,069 calls from 859. The department saw a 95 per cent increase in well-being checks – 822 from 421 – compared to the same timeframe in 2019.
With call numbers on the rise, Preston fears services will be pushed to their breaking points.
“Mental health has always been stretched to capacity … The levy was already full.”
West Shore RCMP officers spend an average of one hour and 45 minutes waiting with the subject of a mental health call before they are turned over to the care of a doctor.
However, Preston noted many of these patients are just released back onto the street due to the current mental health systems, where they often become a police concern again. Of the 1,069 mental health calls the department has responded to this year, 242 people were taken to hospital for assessment by police. Only 157 people were admitted to hospital. On average, 35 per cent are immediately released.
It’s a cycle that’s costing the department a lot of resources. Traditionally, a small portion of the population – or chronic users – accounts for a significant number of specific calls such as mental health or calls which are drug-related.
“We need to deal with those ‘super-users,’ we need to have direct contact and we need a long-term plan,” Preston said, adding long-term services would save money in the bigger picture.
But a recent shift in the demographic of people police interact with on calls has Preston also concerned about the general population’s well-being. While traditionally officers would routinely see mostly chronic users for mental health or drug-related calls, Preston said the spike in call volumes has been caused by individuals not seen by police before.
He credits the pandemic for this shift.
“People don’t adapt well to change,” he explained.
Along with a spike in mental health calls, the West Shore’s fire chiefs have also noticed a significant increase in overdose calls during the past two months.
“It just goes to show you – we’ve had a lot of mental health calls too – people are struggling with this,” said Langford Fire Chief Chris Aubrey.
Aubrey and the rest of the West Shore chiefs are bracing for a tough winter season with so many struggling with their mental health and the financial challenges caused by COVID-19.
October has traditionally been a slower month for fire departments. It’s the shoulder season between the end of wildfire season and the winter months where they tend to see more calls for heating-related fires and vehicle crashes. But that has not been the case this year.
When the pandemic hit, local fire departments re-prioritized the calls they were responding to, leaving some of the medical aid calls they would typical assist with solely to B.C. Ambulance Service.
During that first 12-week period, Colwood Fire Rescue responded to 60 per cent of its previous call volume (compared to the same time frame during 2019).
However, the department is back on track and is only down 20 per cent year-to-date when compared to 2019, which was a record-breaking year in terms of call volume.
The rest of the West Shore departments reported similar numbers with View Royal Fire Rescue back up to its historic numbers.
They credited the dramatic increase in call volumes to mental health and overdose calls and they’re worried the numbers will only continue to rise with the dark, dreary days of winter.
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If you or someone you know is struggling, call the provincial suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-suicide (1-800-784-2433), or visit crisislines.bc.ca to find local mental health and crisis resources.
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