In a mental health crisis, university campus police won't be the only responders under new program

A program that pairs police with trained mental health workers has expanded to the University of Waterloo — a move one student leader says is a long time coming. 

Program involving CMHA, police and piloted in Guelph, aims to help students and minimize unnecessary ER trips

A program that pairs campus police with trained mental health workers has expanded to the University of Waterloo. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A program that pairs police with trained mental health workers has expanded to the University of Waterloo — a change that one student leader says has been a long time coming. 

Under the integrated mobile police and crisis team (IMPACT) program, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Waterloo Wellington, and police work together to provide supportive mental health crisis care to those in need. It builds on a University of Guelph pilot program that began last fall.

From Thursday through Sunday, a staffer with IMPACT will be on call to help assess and de-escalate University of Waterloo students in crisis. 

It's hoped the program will help avoid unnecessary trips to the emergency room. Until now, a common response to a student's after-hours mental health crisis would be for campus police to take them to hospital for assessment — something Jeff Stanlick said can be "very intrusive."

"While it's also very necessary at times, opportunities to provide support by the right person, at the right place, is preferable," said Stanlick, director of services for the CMHA, Waterloo-Wellington. 

Stephanie Ye-Mowe agrees. While in her third year, the faculty of environment student said a professor became concerned about her mental health. They called campus police, who ended up apprehending her in the middle of the university's student centre. 

Stephanie Ye-Mowe, an executive with the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, says the expansion of the IMPACT program is a good step. (Submitted by Stephanie Ye-Mowe)

Ye-Mowe said she was taken to Grand River Hospital, where she waited for hours, only to be sent home when staff decided she wasn't in immediate danger. 

"It was definitely a very traumatic and uncomfortable experience," said Ye-Mowe, vice-president for education with the Waterloo Undergraduate Students' Association. 

"I definitely think that it could have been handled better." 

Ye-Mowe said there's long been a need for better crisis support on campus, especially given that a person's late teens or early twenties is often when a mental illness shows up.

"Being in a stressful environment, mental health emergencies will occur," she said. "So it's important to have crisis services available." 

In her role with the student association, Ye-Mowe has pushed for IMPACT — or something like it — to expand to the University of Waterloo after first hearing about the program as a University of Guelph pilot. 

Guelph pilot successful, says CMHA

The Guelph pilot began in October and has yielded promising results, according to Stanlick.

In less than six months, the program was used more than 100 times, and in the vast majority of cases, people were helped on campus and didn't need to be taken to hospital, he said. 

At the University of Waterloo, the IMPACT program will be based out of the campus safety office and will run Thursdays from 3 p.m. to midnight and Friday through Sunday from 2 p.m. until midnight. 

During those hours, the IMPACT staffer will respond to any distress calls made on campus, along with a campus special constable. Those on campus can also contact the program directly at 519-888-4567, extension 38083. 

During quiet periods, Stanlick said the IMPACT staffer can also provide education to staff and students on campus, and can follow up with students who experienced a crisis earlier in the week. 

Gaps still exist

Ye-Mowe says it's important to have support available for students, given the late teens and early twenties are often when mental illness starts to present itself. (Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock)

Even with the expansion of the IMPACT program, Ye-Mowe said gaps still exist for students seeking mental health care. 

Wait times can be long, both on and off-campus and while the student health plan covers a 24/7 employee assistance program (EAP) style phone service, it isn't necessarily equipped to handle ongoing, complex mental health problems. 

There can also be confusion among students — and providers — about where students should seek help and what they're eligible for, said Ye-Mowe. 

This is a problem, she said, because if students don't have the support they need, they might end up dropping out altogether. 

"Identifying [these problems] early and providing supports, rather than sort of letting students sort of struggle, I think is definitely important," she said. 

Ye-Mowe said it's important to keep looking for opportunities to support students with timely mental health care, and with academic accommodations if necessary.

As for the IMPACT program, it will run as a year-long pilot at the University of Waterloo and will then be subject to a review. 

A program that pairs police with trained mental health workers has expanded to University of Waterloo campus. Stephanie Ye-Mowe, with the Waterloo Undergraduate Students' Association, says this program has been a long time coming.