Smartphone app helps Brandon police navigate mental health calls, connect people with resources
HealthIM app guides officers through clinical risk assessment during calls involving people in mental distress
It's a call police agencies across Canada get all too often — someone in mental distress threatening to harm themselves or others around them. But Brandon police say a new app available at the fingertips of front-line officers has helped more easily de-escalate situations and connect people to the most appropriate resource.
Police in the southwestern Manitoba city began using an app called HealthIM last summer. It was installed on duty-issued smartphones after the police service received provincial funding.
The app guides officers through a clinical risk assessment — a number of questions focused on the behaviours and actions of the person they have encountered. It then recommends a course of action, whether it be connecting the person with community-based resources or taking them to the hospital.
"It removes that subjectively and allows us to go through with a very clear set of definitions … which determines which threat they pose to themselves, what threat they pose to others and perhaps what the best course of action for us to take is," said Sgt. Dallas Lockhart, a street supervisor who has been with the Brandon Police Service for 24 years.
That can help police officers be more confident in the decisions they have to make.
"We have a wide range of experience with our members on the street, [from] somebody who's relatively new … up to somebody like me, who has 20-plus years of service," Lockhart said. "We're going to go into that situation and we are going to see it entirely different."
Police are called to situations where the app might be used on almost a daily basis, he said.
"It can be anything from a person who is experiencing mental health crisis — sitting at home not knowing where to reach out and calling 911 or the police and asking for help … [to] somebody that we find in an acute crisis."
As of last month, the app had been used by officers about 100 times since it was rolled out.
Brandon police said fewer than half of the crisis calls they receive now end in the person being involuntarily taken to the hospital for assessment — a ratio police said was much higher in the past.
Brandon police say people who would have been taken to hospital in the past are now referred to Westman Crisis Services or the Child and Adolescent Treatment Centre.
"By being a more objective tool, it becomes a a fairly black and white decision that we can make, and then we can make our determination on what resources we can direct that person toward," Lockhart said, adding that officers are now able to make direct referrals to both agencies from the app.
The app also allows police to connect directly with emergency rooms to give staff there information about the person they are bringing in. That allows the hospital staff to better prepare for their arrival, and cuts down the amount of time police are waiting with the person.
"I think probably the biggest thing is whenever we deal with people in a mental health crisis, it is a resource heavy call," said Lockhart.
Before using the app, "it wasn't uncommon for us to be sitting in [the emergency room] with somebody in mental crisis for three, four, six hours at a time."
He said officers now only have to wait an average of one hour — also aided by changes in legislation that allow people in some situations to be transferred to the care of hospital security while they wait for the appropriate care.
The app also aims to provide continuity for any future calls involving an individual. It stores the information officers collect to a police database, where it can be called up later if police respond to a call involving the same person.
The province invested $310,000 in 2018 to make HealthIM available for the Winnipeg Police Service, Brandon Police Service, a trio of RCMP detachments and several municipal police forces.
Another $200,000 was announced by the province in 2019 to roll it out to more police forces and RCMP detachments.
The app has been useful to Brandon police in some of the calls they deal with, Lockhart said.
"The actual physical aspect of it really doesn't change," he said. "It's ultimately how we resolve it, and I think that's where it 's become really beneficial."