December 15, 2023 (Ottawa) — A person in a mental health or substance use crisis needs the right response, at the right time, from the right people, with follow up support. Ottawa has long had responses for fire, medical and crime emergencies. Launching during summer 2024, Ottawa will soon have a response for mental health and substance use situations, called a safer alternate response.
Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre are pleased to announce they have been selected by the Ottawa Guiding Council for Mental Health and Addictions to deliver Ottawa’s safer alternate response prototype in the Centretown and Somerset West areas.
A safer alternate response is a non-police, community-led service that dispatches skilled crisis teams to people in mental health and substance use crises. A safer alternate response addresses the needs of the whole person and any underlying factors; in the moment and longer term through ongoing follow-through and connections.
“Ottawa’s alternate response has been co-developed by the community,” said Suzanne Obiorah, executive director, Somerset West Community Health Centre. “We’re building upon existing outreach and response programs that have been co-delivered by Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre for years.”
“In the alternate response, the best response is meeting people where they are at. This might be on the sidewalk,” said Michelle Hurtubise, executive director, Centretown Community Health Centre. “The response is meant to get people to long term support, not just address the behaviour in the moment.”
Both Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre bring extensive experience in working with diverse communities, including Black and racialized populations, Indigenous communities, and those experiencing homelessness. They employ a person-centered, harm reduction, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive approach, with a strong emphasis on building trust and maintaining relationships with clients, their families, and the broader community.
How it works
Ottawa’s alternate response service pilot launches in the summer of 2024. The pilot will serve the Centretown and Somerset West areas 24 hours per day. A safer alternate response is for people in crisis who are not at immediate risk of harm to self or others, and to requests for well-being checks.
A person with concerns about someone experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis phones a confidential 24 hour community service. The situation will be assessed. Once the service has enough information, a call about a mental health and/or substance use situation is diverted to the safer alternate response service. A crisis team is deployed to assist the person. Post-crisis, the team offers follow-up support within 48 hours, ensuring referrals to culturally responsive services.
The safer alternate response team will include team leads, mobile crisis workers, post-response workers, peer support workers, case managers, and more. We will ensure that the staff composition includes a majority of staff from Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities, and who bring lived and living experience of homelessness and substance use. This means they will have first hand knowledge of what communities need.
The safer alternate response team will have extensive training in de-escalation (Non-Violent Crisis Intervention), overdose response, navigating community resources, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, Mental Health First Aid, Naloxone training, training in anti-racism and anti-oppressive practice, health care privacy, self-care and resiliency.
Building upon a model that works
Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre staff are already known and trusted in the communities most likely to need their support. Somerset West Community Health Centre has been operating a crisis outreach team since 2020 and in collaboration with Centretown Community Health Centre since 2022. This crisis team has been providing support to individuals experiencing crises related to mental health, substance use and homelessness in the Somerset West catchment.
Their work has included responding to calls from residential and business neighbours on a widely distributed community response phone line, as well as proactive outreach to non-traditional settings such as encampments.
Activities have included de-escalation, brief counseling, overdose prevention and response, transportation to emergency shelters, referrals to housing, health and social services and distribution of items such as food, water, and harm reduction gear.
Safer alternate response in other Canadian cities
The safer alternate response model is already running in other major Canadian cities, like Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.
Launched on March 31, 2022, the Toronto Community Crisis Service is a pilot project offering a community-based crisis response service in four pilot regions within the City of Toronto.
Toronto’s one-year outcome evaluation report found that the Toronto Community Crisis Service has diverted 78% of mental health and substance use calls received from 911. Only 4% of those responses then requested police support.
Spokespeople available for interview
Councillor Ariel Troster (she/her) (English)
Michelle Hurtubise (she/her/elle), executive director, Centretown Community Health Centre (English and French)
Suzanne Obiorah (she/her/elle), executive director, Somerset West Community Health Centre (English and French)
Liz Wigfull and Sahada Alolo from the Guiding Council Secretariat
About Centretown Community Health Centre
Centretown Community Health Centre is an urban not-for-profit organization providing healthcare for all. We provide a full range of quality health and social services to families and individuals who live or work in the communities we serve. We pay particular attention to groups facing barriers, including the senior population, the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, those affected by mental illness and addictions, people who are homeless and newcomers to Canada. Visit www.centretownchc.org.
About Somerset West Community Health Centre
Somerset West Community Health Centre is a non-profit, community-governed organization. We support people and communities to enjoy the best possible health and well-being by providing health and social services. We do this by removing barriers to accessing services for people who are vulnerable because of their age, income, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity, and language or culture. We work alongside community members to make our neighbourhood and our city an even better place to live. Visit www.swchc.on.ca.
Rachel Carmichael Campbell, communications officer, Centretown Community Health Centre, 343-451-6557, firstname.lastname@example.org