Mental health workers pair with police officers in Hamilton for crisis calls

·Crime Contributor
Hamilton police send mental health pros to the front lines with cops

Police are increasingly finding themselves called to deal with individuals who are having a crisis and need to see mental health professionals.

News stories about someone with a mental health problem or issue being involved in a confrontation with police officers are all too common. Many times, those incidents end with police taking the person to already overburdened hospitals. Others are taken into custody in a jail system that isn’t equipped to handle mental health issues. On rare occasions, incidents escalate and result in a violent or even fatal interaction.

The good news is police services across Canada are increasingly educating officers about dealing with mental health issues because police are often the first people called.

In Hamilton, Ont., the police force has taken a bold step by pairing a mental health professional with a police officer to be dispatched to 911 calls that involve a reported person in crisis.

“Faced with this on a daily basis, the (Hamilton Police) Service developed its Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT), the first of its kind in Canada, to provide direct, rapid support of persons in crisis by pairing a uniformed officer with a mental health professional to respond to these individuals in their time of crisis,” police Chief Glenn De Caire said in a note to Yahoo Canada News.

As of this week, Hamilton now has mental health workers paired with officers seven days a week.

De Caire clearly understands the benefits of the program, which began 15 months ago as a five-night per week pilot project with St Joseph’s Hospital and Hamilton Health Sciences.

Mental health apprehensions were taking place in the city at a rate of about 2,000 per year, figures from the police force show, translating into increased use of police resources.

“But, maybe more importantly, translate that into meeting the needs of the person in crisis,” wrote De Caire. “Not unlike most police services, a disproportionate amount of police resources were being utilized while [the] needs of [the] person in crisis were not being met.”

In addition to reducing the use of police resources, another goal was to reduce the burden on local hospital emergency rooms by connecting those in crisis with other mental health services.

The MCRRT strategy has already shown positive results with a reduction in the amount of time uniformed patrol officers have to remain at the hospital waiting for emergency room doctors to make their assessment. Individuals in crisis are receiving an immediate frontline response and receiving the care they need on scene in partnership with the mental health professional.

The numbers speak for themselves:

* The MCRRT was mobile for 291 shifts and responded to 842 individuals in crisis between November 25, 2013 and January 31, 2015.

* Of the 842 individuals seen there were 226* who were apprehended by the MCRRT under Section 17 of the Mental Health Act for assessment at hospital (*42 youth were taken to McMaster University and were not included in these statistics).

* Of the remaining 574 individuals, 500 were immediately diverted/connected to other available services, 74 were apprehended on the strength of the Mental Health Act Forms already in place and required no further assistance.

The police chief said the program allows people to get the help they need without finding themselves caught up in the legal system.

“Of the apprehensions that do take place, more of the people who are apprehended go right into medical or psychiatric care instead of coming into police custody,” De Caire stated.

“In law enforcement, we know that mental illness is not criminal behaviour and with the addition of our Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team, people in crisis are getting the right care at the right time.”

A spokesman for the St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton said it is a sensible way to handle crises.

“This is a tremendous reflection of the value of collaboration, capacity building and innovation in care,” Dr. David Higgins, President of St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton said recently. “By working together with MCRRT, more people will have access to bestpractice, evidence based care in a timely manner, and in a community or environment that best supports their needs.”

Increasingly, mental health is becoming part of planning discussions as Canadian police forces look for the best ways to use their resources. They are also discussing ways to look after the mental health of the police officers themselves.

Recently, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Mental Health Commission of Canada met for a national conference where mental health and safety of those working in police organizations emerged as an important theme.

The work at the February conference in Hamilton was a followup to a collaboration between the CACP and the MHCC last year which focused on improving interactions between police and persons with mental illness and included the release of a major report on the issue.

“The Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police are committed to continuing to work collaboratively toward the development of a new national framework for police training and education, agreed upon at the 2014 conference,” the two organizations said in a joint statement in February.

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