For the first time, Fort McMurray has a psychiatric nurse working alongside local RCMP officers.
A nurse attended calls with the RCMP for the first time this week through the Police and Crisis Team (PACT).
The program is the result of a collaboration between Alberta Health Services and the RCMP.
Const. Dayna Gosselin is the RCMP officer who will be responding to calls with the psychiatric nurse.
She said she's seen numerous calls regarding mental health and she thinks having mental health support will "be a great benefit to our team."
Gosselin's background is in mental health, as she used to work in social services, youth custody and support groups for addictions and mental health.
PACT responded to a call on the first day of the program, and Gosselin said she's using the experience as a learning opportunity to better respond to future calls.
Many of the calls to the RCMP regarding mental health include family or friends calling about a loved one they are worried may harm themselves or is having suicidal ideations.
Gosselin said that part of the team's routine will be following up with people they've seen in the community to make sure the referrals are working for them.
"We're hoping to divert individuals away from the hospital system as well as the criminal justice system and hopefully connect them with resources within the community that keep them happy and healthy," said Gosselin.
Rosilita Jn-Pierre, manager of addiction and mental health for Alberta Health Services in Fort McMurray, started working to bring the program to Fort McMurray two years ago.
She said it was a "long and slow process" to get the team together and operating during the pandemic and she's excited to see the start of the work.
"The goal here is meeting them in the community where they are at," said Jn-Pierre.
The nurse can help divert people away from the hospital, instead referring them to resources that may be more helpful, like addictions centres.
Currently, a nurse is working with PACT from 1 pm to 9 pm during the week, and that will be extended over the weekend as staff are trained.
Patrick Sesay, director of addiction and mental health for AHS North zone, said the program is currently funded for one year, but he said depending on its success, the grant could be extended or could be funded through Alberta Health Services operations.
"There are quite a number of outlets that the RCMP may not be aware of currently and these services provide that opportunity for that kind of collaboration," said Sesay.
He said over the course over the pandemic, many people accessed mental health services and there was a significant increase in virtual services. Now, he's seeing a return to pre-pandemic numbers.
He said meeting a client and directing them to proper resources is "way better than picking up a client in handcuffs in the back of a police vehicle."
Wood Buffalo RCMP Supt. Mark Hancock said the nurse will respond to mental health calls with a designated officer and they will attend the scene after the RCMP has made sure it's safe.
"I think it's a great alternative to just police responding to a mental health crisis," said Hancock.
Hancock said the RCMP has seen an increase in mental health calls. In 2019, there were 784 calls for service relating to mental health. In 2020 there were 917 calls. And in 2021, there were 946 calls.
So far in 2022 there have been 202 calls.
"It is something that you can see that the numbers are rising," said Hancock.