As mental health calls spike across Nova Scotia, police force pleads for help
As pandemic took hold last year, officers responded to about 20% more crisis calls
As the pandemic drags on, a small Nova Scotia police force has realized they're not equipped to properly handle mental health calls, and they need help from health professionals.
In the towns of New Glasgow and Trenton, mental health crisis calls nearly doubled in 2020 — the highest increase for any municipal police department in Nova Scotia.
"I do believe the implications of the pandemic, certainly the stress of that, have caused a significant jump in calls for service as it relates to mental wellness and mental crisis," said New Glasgow Regional Police Deputy Chief Ryan Leil.
A CBC News analysis shows that during 2020, as the pandemic ramped up and restrictions tightened, municipal police departments across Nova Scotia responded to about 20 per cent more crisis calls overall.
The statistics were gathered through access-to-information requests.
Police in New Glasgow responded to 385 mental health calls in 2019, and a total of 746 in 2020. As of Aug. 31, they had received 596 calls — a pace that could easily top the 2020 figures.
Cape Breton Regional Police Service also had a significant jump in mental health calls, with 833 in 2019 and 1,261 in 2020. That's an increase of 51 per cent.
The rise in complex cases has been "difficult," according to Leil.
"We're not mental health experts. We're not addictions experts," he said.
"We do need support and that's why we've taken our own initiative to partner with addictions and mental health, specifically crisis response in the northern zone, because we can't approach this alone."
New Glasgow Regional Police recently received crisis intervention team program training from Nova Scotia Health, with a focus on patrol members.
In a statement, the health authority said the goal of the program is to "set a standard of excellence for [intervention team] trained police officers with respect to interventions with people with mental illness."
Dr. Andrew Harris, senior medical director for mental health and addictions for Nova Scotia Health, said efforts to help police officers across the province is an ongoing process.
"They're often attending to situations which are probably, you know, out of their skill set and they may not have sufficient training," he said.
"So we're looking at ways in which we can support and partner with our first responder colleagues to address this."
High volume of calls in Halifax
Halifax Regional Police maintained the same level of calls it had before the pandemic. However, it has by far the highest call volume in the province, with around 3,100 each year. One-quarter of those calls were related to attempted suicides.
The Halifax department declined a request for an interview, instead issuing a statement.
"Police workload related to mental health, suicide calls and crisis prevention has consistently increased over the years," said Const. John MacLeod in the statement.
Halifax Regional Police is part of the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team, which includes mental health professionals and police officers in the Halifax area.
MacLeod also said police provide a "measure of safety," but they recognize there is room to do more.
Harris said although a similar model to the mobile crisis team is needed outside of Halifax, that's not going to happen any time soon.
"We've extensively studied the expansion of that, but it requires the population density because obviously, if you're in Cape Breton and you have a mobile crisis, you could be three hours from one end of the zone to the other," said Harris.
In New Glasgow, Leil said he is willing to take whatever help he can get from health professionals, so that people experiencing a mental health crisis get the care they need.
He said it's a known fact that people don't want to see a police uniform and flashing lights in their most vulnerable moments.
"We want to break down the perception of criminalizing mental health or mental crisis type behaviour because we're simply there to help," said Leil.
Where to go for help
If you're experiencing a mental health crisis, Nova Scotia Health offers online mental health services.
People who are looking for support are encouraged to call their local clinic, the mental health and addictions intake line at 1-855-922-1122 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. AT on weekdays, or the province's toll-free mental health crisis line at 1-888-429-8167, which is available 24 hours, seven days a week.
People can also contact the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 anytime of day.
If you're experiencing an emergency, call 911.