Nova Scotia·In Depth

Meet Halifax's mental health mobile crisis team

Halifax's mental health mobile crisis team is shrouded in secrecy.
From left to right: Angela Balcolm, Mary Pyche and Mary-Beth Flory are members of the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team. (Blair Rhodes/CBC)

Halifax's mental health mobile crisis team is shrouded in secrecy.

They don't wear uniforms, they don't travel in marked vehicles and they keep the location of their headquarters a secret, to ensure the safety of the people working there.

Mary Pyche, the program leader for crisis emergency services for the Capital District Health Authority, said the idea for a crisis team first started taking shape back in 2003.

"We started putting that proposal together to the department of health. Took a little while," she said.

"By 2006, we had the partnership up and running. We also included in the partnership the IWK as well, so that the service would offer crisis response in the community right across the age spectrum."

In a recent interview with CBC News, Pyche said the team handles about 1,000 cases a month. That's based on 300 to 350 people each making multiple calls for help to the team.

Pyche said 95 per cent of those calls are new — first-time callers or people who haven't called the crisis line for at least two months. That turnover is proof the team is successful, she said.

Mary-Beth Flory, a registered nurse and the clinical practice leader for the crisis team, spends her mornings preparing for when the team hits the road in the afternoon and evenings.

"Come 1 o'clock in the afternoon, the team sits down," Flory said.

"That's three clinicians and our two officers who are on for those hours. And we triage again where we're going to be going throughout the day — where we need to go first, what kind of supports do we believe the team is going to be needing to provide."

Halifax Regional Police support

Four members of Halifax Regional Police are assigned to the team. They work in plain clothes.

Const. Angela Balcolm, one of those officers, said a uniform wouldn't work in her job.

"We try to make people as comfortable as we can and of course, decriminalize mental illness," she said.

"We're there for the person's safety, not to look into any criminal matters."

Balcolm said officers operate under a memorandum of understanding, so they don't share what they hear on the crisis team with other police officers.

Pyche said the police officers give the team extra power.

"We knew if we could partner with police, that they had the authority to do wellness checks and we could go along with them," she said.

That police presence allows the team to respond when friends or family members warn about a person's deteriorating mental condition.

Not all 'lights and sirens'

Mary-Beth Flory said the team doesn't require family intervention to act.

"A person can refer themselves," Flory said.

"It's very easy access. It can simply be a phone call. A person does not need a referral from a physician or from a psychologist to access support, and that it is a wide range of intervention and services that can be provided."

For Angela Balcolm, working with the crisis team offers a different facet to police work.

"People watch TV and they see all the shows like Cops and all that," she said.

"Is that a reality in our work? Absolutely. Sometimes."

Balcolm said her work isn't all "lights and sirens."

"I think it's huge to see this program that is assisting people because the police role in this is huge — getting people, detaining people and taking individuals into hospital, if that's what needs to happen," she said.