Mental health workers, police officers working together under new crisis-response program

A new program will see Thunder Bay police officers working alongside mental health workers to respond to mental health crisis calls in Thunder Bay.

North West LHIN pledges $400K to new Thunder Bay Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team

Thunder Bay police will work alongside mental health workers when responding to a mental health-related call starting in June. The Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team program is a partnership between Thunder Bay police and the Thunder Bay branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Cathy Alex/CBC)

A new program will see Thunder Bay police officers working alongside mental health workers to respond to mental health crisis calls in Thunder Bay.

The Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team program is a partnership between Thunder Bay police and the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. It's being supported by the North West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), which is contributing about $400,000 to the initiative.

Mental health workers dispatched to calls

"In Thunder Bay, it will mean that Thunder Bay police will get a call through 911 for a mental health crisis," said Jennifer Hyslop, director of program services at the Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) Thunder Bay branch.

"[CMHA] will then be contacted through our crisis response phone line, and we will dispatch our joint mobile team to meet police on-scene to respond to the individual who's in crisis," she said.

The CMHA mental health worker can then assess the individual in crisis, and determine what they need, Hyslop said. Police, she said, are not in a position to make those assessments, as they're not mental health experts, she said.

"They only get three hours of training in police college," Hyslop said. "So having models like this decriminalizes mental illness, decreases the number of injuries that may potentially happen when police interact with people with a mental illness."

'Phenomenal' results in other communities

"You've got a mental health worker who has expertise in de-escalation, really understanding the illness, what psychosis looks like, for example."

Similar models are used elsewhere in Ontario — including in Hamilton and Sudbury — and results have been "phenomenal across the province," Hyslop said.

The program arose out of discussions over the amount of time police officers were spending at the emergency department when responding to mental health calls.

Hyslop said police receive between two and six mental health calls per shift, and every one requires police to transport the individual to the emergency room at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

Police spend hours in emergency department

There, they have to wait until the individual is seen by a doctor, which can take two to four hours (in some cases, police wait six hours, Hyslop said).

"Our emergency department is a very, very busy emergency department," she said. "That's a barrier in our community, because every time police officers are sitting in [the emergency room] with an individual, they're not on the streets."

The mental health workers can refer individuals to other services, with only those in need of emergency department services taken there, Hyslop said.

"My CEO, Sharon Pitawanakwat, heard of this, and so we attended the first meeting and said 'hey, we'd be happy to partner with the police to develop some kind of model," Hyslop said. "We have the infrastructure; we already have a 24-hour crisis response program."

Hyslop said the program will be up and running in June.