Ottawa

Loss of mental health teams a step backward, police warn

Police in Lanark County are warning the loss of a program that pairs mental health nurses with front-line officers is a "step backward" in how they deal with vulnerable people in the community.

Lanark County's mobile crisis response teams about to lose their funding

Nurse Christine Lapeer explains how a certain approach to mental health calls can diffuse a situation and prevent the need for police to take someone into custody. 0:51

Police in Lanark County are warning the loss of a program that pairs mental health nurses with front-line officers is a "step backward" in how they deal with vulnerable people in the community.

The mobile crisis response teams involving Lanark County OPP and Smiths Falls police were given a two-year provincial grant of $158,000. The money runs out in March, and will not be renewed.

Participants say the program has helped reduce the number of people taken into custody.

"I've seen guys down in the cells after they've just faced some serious charges, I've seen people who are missing a purse and we found out they have dementia, or you just see teenagers in distress," said nurse Christine Lapeer, who responds to calls and conducts follow-up visits with Const. Aaron Tompkins of the Smiths Falls Police Service.

"They see it as police ... trying to help them, as well as mental health services."

Christine Lapeer, a registered nurse, and Smiths Falls police Const. Aaron Tompkins respond to mental health crisis calls as members of the mobile crisis response team. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Police respond to crisis calls when someone is reported to be a potential threat to themselves or someone else. Mental health nurses can provide on-the-scene care and referrals to prevent a visit to the hospital.

"Those people are now able to stay in their homes, interact with their family and have some follow-up visits with a mental health professional," Tompkins said.

For the last year, the Smiths Falls Police Service has been working to better address mental health crises by pairing officers with mental health experts on calls. Const. Aaron Thompkins and registered nurse Christine Lapeer explain how it works. 2:06

Lanark OPP say the program has reduced emergency room visits by 17 per cent, or 82 cases in the last three years. Tompkins said Smiths Falls police have seen similar results.

He said having the nurses on hand can also help avoid physical confrontation and the use of handcuffs during mental health calls. 

"Less people are going to hospital. They're not needing to be apprehended, therefore there's less chance of force."

Smiths Falls police Chief Mark MacGillivray says the mobile crisis response unit has helped people get access to mental health services, and has helped reduce the stigma of being taken to hospital by police. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Smiths Falls police Chief Mark MacGillivray said the teams can help prevent people with mental health issues from getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

"Things can escalate into where this is a justice issue," McGillvary said. "The idea of mobile crisis response is to try to intervene at an early stage, sometimes the first call or the second call, and hopefully avoid bringing it to the justice system."

Front-line medical support

Jessie Titterton, a Lanark County mental health nurse who works with the OPP, said nurses can access information on patients that police can't.

"We have the time while we're there to do as much verbal de-escalation as we can," Titterton said. "Any nurse-related medical screening we can do [including] checking on medications, which police may not be able to do."

Titterton said the nurses can also speed up assessments in the emergency room when people are taken to hospital.

Jessie Titterton is a mental health nurse with Lanark County OPP. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Skylar More, a teenager from Montague Township, said she was able to get help from the team when she was facing an emotional breakdown.

"They tried keeping the situation calm as much as they could so I wouldn't have another panic attack," More said. "They left their handcuffs in their car so I wouldn't assume I was getting arrested."

While she did end up going to the hospital, it was with her dad and not in the back of a police car. She appreciated that the team visited her after.

"It kind of feels like you're not getting left out and they'll come back and reassure you."

Skylar More sits with her dog Lily at her family's Montague Township home. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

'A step backward'

Insp. Karuna Padiachi, interim commander of Lanark County OPP, said patrol officers have used techniques they learned from mental health nurses when they've been out by themselves.

He's concerned the funding is ending when police in Lanark County saw an 80 per cent increase in mental health calls during the pilot.

"We're actually going to be a step backwards, to a point, as to how we're dealing with persons in crisis," Padiachi said.

Insp. Karuna Padiachi, interim commander of Lanark County OPP, said reducing the number of nurses would be a 'step backward' in how police respond to people experiencing mental health crises. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Lapeer also doesn't want to see the program end.

"I'm not leaving yet. They're going to have drag me out," she said. 

It's a new program that pairs mental health nurses with police to help respond to crisis calls in Lanark County. But the funding for that pilot runs out at the end of the month and police say it's loss will be a 'step backwards' for the community. 6:43

 

About the Author

Matthew Kupfer

CBC Reporter

Matthew Kupfer has been a reporter and producer at CBC News since 2012. He can be reached at matthew.kupfer@cbc.ca and on Twitter @matthewkupfer

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