People with mental health problems who are picked up by the OPP, will soon get better access to medical help.

The Essex County OPP on Wednesday formally launched the Community Outreach and Support Team (COAST), a joint initiative with Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ont. It's a pilot project for the OPP, the first the provincial force has ever used.

The program is aimed at reducing the amount of time police spend dealing with calls that would be better handled by the health-care system.

'By default, police have become social workers.' — Fran Chalmers, Hôtel-Dieu Grace

"By default, it seems, police have become social workers in their respective communities," said Fran Chalmers, the manager of the Community Crisis Centre at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital.

She said when officers respond to a mental-health call, it diverts resources away from fighting crime.

Under the Mental Health Act, police must bring people they believe are suffering from a mental illness and are a danger to themselves or others to hospital.

Police must stay with patients until a doctor takes over. That can take hours.

"That’s a high use of police resources," Chalmers said.

'Treatment, not jail,' says OPP

OPP Chief Superintendent John Cain said Wednesday there is a "critical gap" between mental health issues and policing. He said a program like COAST can change that.

"The answer to our mental health problem lies in treatment, not in jail time," Cain said. "The practice has to change."

Cain said times and practice have changed when it comes to mental health.

"When I started policing, the practice was, you picking the individual up, filled out a Form 10, took them to the hospital, dropped them off at the door and hoped you made it back to the cruiser before they made it back out the door. It became a cycle," Cain said. "The timing of this is right. The stigma that surrounded mental health problems is finally lifting. Now people are finally talking about."

As part of the program, constables partner with a crisis workers. Cain said police only address the symptoms of mental health and not the underlying causes.

The team does not respond to 911 calls. The two partners are not first-responders.

Instead, they respond to referrals from other OPP officers in the field. They also respond to calls from neighbours, friends and doctors.

The team will provide on-site risk and mental-health assessment.

"We’re hoping that with a program like COAST that, over time, there will be less individuals that need to be transported to hospital to receive this care," Chalmers said.

Chalmers called the partners "highly-trained individuals."

"They have to learn how to respond to a person in distress," she said.

Chalmers said tone of voice, choice of words, clear directive language and physical approach are all important.

COAST has been used in other Ontario communities, such as Hamilton.

According to the program there:

  • 1 in 5 Canadians (6 Million people) will develop a mental illness at some time in their lives.
  • At any given time, at least one percent of the population (approximately 300,000 Canadians) is likely to have a serious and persistent mental illness.
  • It is estimated that schizophrenia affects approximately one per cent of Canadians.
  • Mood disorders affect about 10 per cent of Canadians.
  • Anxiety disorders affect about 12 per cent of Canadians.

The COAST Hamilton's crisis line is answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The mobile team there consists of a mental health worker and a police officer who  respond to crisis calls between the hours of 8 a.m. and 1 a.m. daily.

The COAST program officially launched Wednesday morning at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital.

The Windsor Police Service had its own COAST program. It lasted two years. Chalmers said it may soon return.