Toronto police app maps out mental health services for people in crisis

Toronto police officers now have an app that will help them connect someone experiencing a mental health crisis with the support services closest to them.

Community Asset Portal lays out mental health services available in the area

Toronto police respond to 25,000 mental health calls each year. They have a new app to help them connect people with support services. (Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock )

Toronto police officers now have an app that will help them connect someone experiencing a mental health crisis with the support services closest to them.

But the hope, one of its creators says, is that the public starts using the app — which pinpoints the user's location and generates a map of services — to prevent an emergency.

Ian Williams, manager of business intelligence and analytics with Toronto police, said he hopes the app will help beat officers. (CBC)

"What we're working with our partners here to do, is to achieve some proactive success where individuals have access to the resources ... that they need before somebody needs to call 911," said Ian Williams,  manager of business intelligence and analytics for the police.

Williams's team developed the app, which is called the Community Asset Portal, with the help of Ryerson University geography students using data from Toronto's 211 program.

25,000 mental health calls a year

Officers working in the mobile crisis intervention unit, which responds to mental health calls with a nurse or social worker, have been using the app for about four months.

So far, the app is seeing about 50 hits a day, Williams said.

Toronto police receive an average of 70 mental-health calls each day, according to their statistics. That works out to roughly 25,000 each year.

About half of those end with someone being taken to a hospital or another institution, Williams said.

I think the backdrop to this is that for people with serious mental health issues there are long waits.- Steve Lurie, Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto 

But many others are people who need a place to sleep or a meal. The app shows the full range of social services nearby — everything from shelters to food banks to legal aid clinics.

App came out of Sammy Yatim review

A call for such an app emerged in 2014. It came as one of the recommendations included in former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci's review of how the Toronto police respond to mental health crisis situations.

That review was called after Const. James Forcillo fatally shot Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar in 2013. It was a move seen at the time as an attempt to restore faith in the police.

Former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci recommended such an app in his 2014 review of policing and mental health in Toronto. (Toronto Police Service)

Iacobucci recommended that police create a tool that would "efficiently communicate to officers a comprehensive up-to-date list or map of available mental health resources of all types in their area."

While the tool may help police to de-escalate mental health crises, the executive director of Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto questioned how many of the services would be available when needed.

"If somebody needs immediate access to the safe beds and they're full and the police bed is full then an app won't make much difference," Steve Lurie said. "I think the backdrop to this is that for people with serious mental health issues there are long waits."

That's why Lurie said he hopes police track how frequently they're unable to connect someone with services in the community.

"Even to be able to track what happens to the 70 calls a day they get will be really helpful for both those of us who provide services and also the funders — because there will be a clear indication of where the problems are."

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Laura Fraser

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With files from CBC's Metro Morning