The acute behavioural stabilization unit is part of a government promise to address what Vancouver police have described as a mental health crisis in the city.
Last fall, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu and Mayor Gregor Robertson suggested in a five-point plan that an additional 300 long-term care beds are needed to treat people suffering from mental health challenges and substance abuse.
Health Minister Terry Lake said on Wednesday he's not sure if the new unit — the first of its kind in Vancouver — is enough to support the city's most vulnerable patients, but it's an important first step.
"This is nine more beds than we had before, and there will be times, I'm sure, when it won't be sufficient and other times when it will be more than enough to meet demand," he said.
"We'll have to assess it and respond to the demand and as we learn from this, make improvements if necessary to ensure we are doing the right thing and meeting those needs."
Lake also introduced on Wednesday a new community outreach team that will connect mentally ill patients leaving local emergency departments to community services.
St. Paul's Hospital, near Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, has seen a 63 per cent increase in the number of patients with mental illness and addictions issues since 2009.
Dr. Anna Nazif, the hospital's medical director of emergency psychiatry, said mentally ill patients who enter the emergency department can be taken to the new unit, where they can be assessed by emergency physicians, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers.
"When we treat these people in an acute emergency area, they don't have the psychiatric nursing, they don't have the calming environment where we can control what's going on around them," she said.
"In bringing them to this area, we should be able to reduce the use of restraints, use the least imposing situation for them and hopefully be able to transition them through their care quickly."
The new unit comes with a number of security measures to protect both patients and staff. It includes four seclusion rooms and three interview rooms where doors fitted with unbreakable glass can swing both ways to prevent anyone from being trapped inside. Chairs are also weighted down so patients can't throw them at hospital staff.
The area is also fitted with new security cameras, and the bathrooms and ceilings have been upgraded so patients will not be able to attempt suicide by hanging.
New Democrat Spencer Chandra Herbert, whose Vancouver riding encompasses St. Paul's Hospital, said he welcomes the new hospital unit and the new outreach team, but he said the government needs to focus more on early diagnosis of mental illnesses or addictions programs to keep people out of the emergency department.
"You need to be preventative just as much as you need to react when there's an issue," he said.
"This very much seems to be a reactive approach, and you absolutely have to react, I just want us to be focusing on driving down the number of people who have severe mental health and addictions issues."
The police chief and the mayor had asked the province last fall for help dealing with increasing violence and police calls involving those with severe mental illnesses or addictions.
They made five recommendations, including adding 300 long-term treatment beds, creating more outreach teams, and establishing a crisis centre for expert care.
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