Calgary to implement citywide mental health and addictions strategy

City council approved a motion Tuesday to earmark up to $25 million for a citywide mental-health and addictions strategy.

The notice of motion, introduced by Mayor Naheed Nenshi, calls for the money to be taken out of the city’s fiscal stability reserve. He cited deaths in Calgary from opioid overdoses as part of the crisis driving the need for such action.  Council voted 11-3 in favour of the motion after amendments, but some councillors raised concerns about whether the city is “duplicating” health services that should fall under the province’s purview.

And front-line addictions and mental-health workers say they want to ensure the move doesn’t simply put resources toward further research or planning rather than concrete action to address people’s needs.

The approved motion directs $15 million to go toward a community services prevention investment framework, with an additional $10 million earmarked for initiatives under the mental-health and addictions strategy.  Nenshi said the strategy reflects his effort to ensure the city takes a more proactive approach to mental-health and addiction issues and doesn’t “pass the buck” to the province.  “This is great. It means we can get started; it means we can immediately put some money to work toward a prevention and investment framework,” he said.

The motion is aimed at better taking into account the “complex links” between mental health, addictions and crime prevention.  “When you think about what the city spends on these issues … it impacts almost every business unit in the city. We’re doing it anyway, and we should be doing it in a more thoughtful way.”

Councillor Sean Chu said he felt the motion was rushed through council, and he wanted more time to examine what the city’s role should be in addressing mental-health issues.  “Definitely we should help. However, are we wading into other people’s responsibility?” he said. “It feels like it’s like, ‘That feels good, let’s do this.’”

Nenshi said there is “deliberately” no set plan for where the money will immediately go because he wants to bring community services and stakeholders to the table to plot a way forward.  “Just like we did on homelessness, just like we did on poverty, this is community systems strategy 3.0,” he said.

Tanis Petry, a mental-health and addictions clinician at The Alex community health centre, said there’s a pressing need for more services in Calgary.  “People are just not getting services they need. They’re not,” Petry said.  While she said the city strategy is a positive step, she doesn’t want to see repeated discussions on well-established research from groups like the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. Instead, she said, Calgary needs resources put toward making a concrete difference on the ground.

“We’re seeing almost an overwhelming need on the front lines for just more counselling, more treatment options. And more treatment options and facilities that offer a harm-reduction perspective,” she said.  “I would love to see the strategies and funding that’s being discussed build upon the successful research that’s already occurring and to connect with the people who are doing the work.”

Beltline Neighbourhoods Association president Peter Oliver said his group would also like to see money put toward community programming, especially in the city core, where there has been an increase in property crime, partly related to poverty and addiction issues.  “Sometimes, these types of things, you can’t just solve them all through policing. You’re better investing in the fabric of the community,” Oliver said.  Services such as the Alpha House Shelter’s DOAP team, which offers mobile aid for people on the street, have been “strained,” Oliver said.

“It makes a lot of sense to give them a boost to help stay on top of the issue.”

Mount Royal University justice studies professor Kelly Sundberg said the city strategy offers an opportunity to have a broader conversation about how Calgary approaches crime and addictions. He’d also like to see Calgary’s five post-secondary institutions involved in lending their expertise to addressing mental health and crime reduction.  “It’s time we have a standing group or standing office or centre or institute … that is tasked with looking at community-focused safety, security and crime reduction,” Sundberg said.

“How can we as a community work more effectively and efficiently and economically together so that groups aren’t having to compete for funding?”

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