News / Vancouver

SFU study confirms mental health crisis in Vancouver Downtown Eastside

New study reveals 99 per cent of “high frequency service users” with convictions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have at least one mental disorder.

A Vancouver police cruiser in a Downtown Eastside alley.

Emily Jackson/Metro

A Vancouver police cruiser in a Downtown Eastside alley.

A new study on prolific Downtown Eastside criminal offenders is proof of a mental health crisis in the neighbourhood, according to a Simon Fraser University researcher.

Health sciences researcher Julian Somers and his team accessed the anonymous case files, social and health services records of 14,000 people sentenced at Vancouver provincial court between 2003 and 2012.

Of the 323 individuals deemed “very high frequency service users”, 99 per cent were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder and 80 per cent also had a substance abuse problem.

The study, published Monday, comes seven years after Vancouver police published its Lost in Transition report warning of a mental health crisis in the Downtown Eastside and outlining how a lack of mental health treatment services has made police officers the first point of contact for many residents suffering from mental illness.

“[The new data shows] the perceptions of the police and the mayor at the time were quite accurate that there is a mental health crisis and people are getting stuck in a revolving door,” Somers told Metro.

The study found that over a five-year period, 216 high frequency service users who received community sentences averaged $168,000 in public service costs while accessing health, social welfare and justice services.

The 107 high frequency service users sentenced to a spell in custody racked up an average of $247,000 in public service costs during the same time frame.

Somers believes his study can help service providers help those individuals more effectively.

“We’re trying to shine a light on this segment. One of the benefits of this type of research is it highlights the characteristic of these people,” he said. “So if its schizophrenia we’re seeing in a large percentage, it leads to a much more specialized [treatment] model.”

Somers said effective treatment and outreach already exist in the form of Vancouver Coastal Health’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams.

Once a patient has secure housing, the teams visit with patients proactively and help them transition from a “chaotic lifestyle” to stability, allowing them to get their life back on track through employment or education programs.

In some cases, however, the process can take years.

The study concludes that kind of targeted support is required in order “to produce positive outcomes and prevent the perpetuation of a costly and ineffective revolving door.”

But Somers believes the issue also goes beyond a cold, calculated look at the costs and benefits.
“The cost arguments have been made,” he said. “But it’s really about what kind of society we want to have and where our values are.”

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