Mental health pilot project good news for community, police say

Thunder Bay police are hopeful that a new pilot project will not only help people going through a mental health crisis get the help they need faster, but also help reduce the police resources spent on the growing number of mental health calls the local force receives.

Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team pilot project starts June 11

Thunder Bay police Community Services Insp. Sharon Komar hopes the Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team pilot project will be successful and become a permanent program in the city. (CBC News)

Thunder Bay police are hopeful that a new pilot project will not only help people going through a mental health crisis get the help they need faster, but also help reduce the police resources spent on the growing number of mental health calls the local force receives.

The Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team pilot project — a partnership between Thunder Bay Police, the local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, and Northwest Local Health Integration Network, which is providing the funding — begins June 11, and will run for about a year.

It will pair police officers with trained mental health crisis workers when responding to mental health-related calls, which could include threats of suicide, or attempts, or simply a social media post that prompts an individual's friends or relatives to call police, asking them to check on the person's well-being, said Thunder Bay police Community Services Insp. Sharon Komar.

Not criminal

The calls aren't criminal matters, but rather deal with "people in mental health crisis," Komar said. But, she added, "when the police respond to a call, it's not just whether or not the person is a harm to themselves — it's to other people, as well. We have to keep that in mind."

Police do receive some mental health training, and Thunder Bay police trains its officers in de-escalation techniques each year.

Still, Komar said, police officers aren't mental health crisis workers. It's a gap the pilot project hopes to fill.

"I'm really excited about it on many levels," she said. "One, for these people that are going through these mental health crises, they're going to get those services that they need at the time."

Number of calls increasing

"On a different level, my officers aren't going to be tied up with these particular calls," Komar said. "Not saying that they're not important, because they 100 per cent are, but if we can get the right person there dealing with the person in crisis, then our officers are out there being able to protect the public from other issues."

The number of mental health calls to Thunder Bay police isn't dropping, said Komar, who helped organize the pilot project.

In fact, over the last year, the number of calls has jumped 23 per cent. Police regularly see between three and eight such calls every day.

From January 9 to February 9 this year, police received 124 mental health crisis calls, Komar said.

She said officers spent, in total, 11,339 minutes — nearly 189 hours — addressing those calls over the course of that 30-day period.

"That includes the time that they were at the residence or the location, to the time they had to escort the person in crisis to the hospital, to the time they had to wait at the hospital until the proper assessment was done," Komar said.

Under current rules, police have to transport someone in a mental health crisis to the hospital, and wait with them until they're assessed by a doctor.

"Sometimes, the officers are waiting two, three, five, six hours, in [the emergency department], with a person in crisis, sometimes in the hallway," Komar said. "That is not the right service at the right time for these people in crisis."

The Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team will address that end of the problem, as well, Komar said, as the mental health crisis workers can assess people at the scene, without needing a trip to the hospital.

"When a call comes in either from a member of the public or from crisis mobile response, the police will attend the call as well as the crisis response worker," she said. "We'll go at the same time."

Assessment, support at the scene

Police will go in first if there's a safety concern, but otherwise, the aim is to have the crisis response workers and police enter at the same time, so a rapport can be built between the crisis response worker at person in crisis immediately.

"[Crisis response workers] have a lot more intensive training in relation to crisis response and mental health," Komar said. "They can talk them down a bit, de-escalate the situation, and then sometimes they won't even need to go to the hospital, because they're left in the care of the crisis response worker, and services are provided at that moment."

The pilot project will run until March 31, 2019, and Komar hopes funding will become annual after that.