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Mental health calls on the rise for search and rescue teams in Nova Scotia

A representative of the Colchester Ground Search and Rescue Association says mental health-related calls have been on the rise for at least the last decade. (Edward LeBlanc - image credit)
A representative of the Colchester Ground Search and Rescue Association says mental health-related calls have been on the rise for at least the last decade. (Edward LeBlanc - image credit)

Search and rescue organizations in Nova Scotia are getting more mental health training as they see more calls involving people with psychological or intellectual impairments.

Bettina Brown, the lead for the mental health initiative of the Colchester Ground Search and Rescue Association, says about 75 per cent of the calls they receive involve lost people who have some form of mental health issue.

That includes people with autism or dementia who have wandered off, or people with some form of mental illness, including those who could be contemplating suicide, she said.

"Especially over the last decade, we've seen an increase of those types of calls," Brown told CBC Radio's Information Morning Halifax on Wednesday.

"That [has] helped us highlight some awareness and necessity for specialized resources, whether it's equipment, tools or change in search tactics to look for lost persons who either may not want to be found or not know that they need to be found."

Brown said because of this, her organization was awarded a $25,000 community grant from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia over the last year to provide some employees with Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASSIST).

The training is offered through several organizations, including St. John Ambulance and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and is modified to suit the needs of participating organizations.

"For most search calls ... we would be able to do hasty teams and be singing out their names or blowing whistles or attracting them in some way," Brown said.

"But when people fall in these other categories ... such tactics could actually cause them to go further or to hide from the searchers."

She said these mental health search and rescue calls also require specialized equipment, like hand-held infrared devices or drones with infrared technology, so search teams can locate the missing person without startling them.

Searchers are then taught to conduct a containment method to limit how far the missing person can get outside a certain perimeter, while members trained in suicide invention are brought in. Those members would then use an ASSIST model called Pathway for Assisting Life.

"It helps navigate that difficult conversation regardless of the person and regardless of the situation," Brown said.

Colchester Ground Search and Rescue Association has a new remote rescue team.
Colchester Ground Search and Rescue Association has a new remote rescue team.

The Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASSIST) program is offered through several organizations, including St. John Ambulance and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and is modified to suit the needs of participating organizations. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

The trained members first determine whether the person is thinking about suicide, and if they are, they identify "turning points" in the conversation, which could include the mention of a child, spouse or pet, as a way to coax them to safety.

If they are no clear turning points, Brown said the fact that the person is having the conversation is a sign they're not "100 per cent certain that they want to die by suicide."

"We are taught through this course to be able to support any turning point, even if it's just simply uncertainty, versus something that they care greatly about in their lives."

Brown said the Colchester Ground Search and Rescue Association has been able to train other search and rescue organizations in Nova Scotia.

Rise in need for mental health training

Starr Cunningham, president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, said before the Colchester association requested funding, she didn't realize search and rescue teams responded to mental health calls, and was surprised they didn't have the critical mental health training.

"I think what this tells us is there's a real appetite for information and knowledge," Cunningham said.

"And if our search and rescue members are seeing a rise in calls related to mental health crisis, I feel it's our responsibility to provide them with the training they need to keep those people safe and to keep themselves safe."

She said the ASSIST program is available to all Nova Scotian organizations, not just search and rescue teams, and applications have increased four-fold over the last year. She said even driving instructors and hair stylists have applied, she said.

"I think this mental health training is needed for every Nova Scotian. It's not just search and rescue teams. It's not just people who work in a mental health capacity," she said.

"I think it's needed by everyone. Just like we know when to call 911, just like we know how to tend to someone who has a broken arm to keep them safe until we get them to the hospital. I think it's not just search and rescuers, it's every Nova Scotian."

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, you can contact the Chimo Hotline, Kids Help Phone or Canada Suicide Prevention Service for help. The provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line can also be reached 24/7 by calling 1-888-429-8167.

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