Saskatoon

Mental health calls up 66% in 2020 over previous year: Saskatoon police

More than 1,500 calls were fielded by the police and crisis team in 2020, which pairs an officer with a social worker from Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Services in order to better respond to mental health calls.

Saskatoon police, Mobile Crisis say increase is due to ‘wear and tear’ of pandemic

The officer in charge of the Saskatoon Police Service's vulnerable persons unit attributes a spike in mental health calls directly to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Mental health calls to Saskatoon police were up 66 per cent in 2020 over the previous year, according to a report from the police service.

The vulnerable persons unit annual report will be reviewed at a Board of Police Commissioners meeting Thursday.

More than 1,500 calls were fielded by the police and crisis team, which pairs an officer with a social worker from Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Services, also known as Mobile Crisis, in order to better respond to mental health calls. That's up from 949 calls the year before.

Sgt. Jodi Earl, who is in charge of the vulnerable persons unit, attributes the spike in calls directly to the changes the COVID-19 pandemic brought.

"COVID has definitely affected people," Earl said. "We've noticed people with higher anxiety, higher depression. People are feeling unsupported, they're feeling very isolated... Definitely their mental health is being affected." 

Calls spiked by 66 per cent in 2020 over the previous year, according to a report being presented to the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners. Sgt. Jodi Earl says she expects 2021 call volume to remain high. (Saskatoon Police Service)

She also said the demographics of people calling for help range more than in previous years.

"We're seeing people we've never seen before and all walks of life," she said.

The number of mental health warrants has also been steadily increasing. There were double the number of warrants in 2020 — 330 — compared to 2015, when there were 165. A mental health warrant can be issued by the courts at the request of family members if someone is unwilling to get help.

There are currently two police and crisis teams. Police would like to see that increased to four.

Earl said one team works each day, with the officer working a 12-hour shift and the social worker a 10-hour shift. Typically, she said a team will work two day shifts followed by two evening shifts, and then the next team will come on, so the crisis teams don't have full coverage.

"These kinds of calls are more emotionally and mentally charged," she said.

Often, "they will take more time just because there is a lot of talking, a lot of safety planning, a lot of looking for different alternatives."

She expects 2021 numbers to be similar to last year's.

'Wear and tear of isolation'

Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Services executive director Rita Field said in 2019, about 63 per cent of calls had mental health issues as the primary problem.

In 2020, that jumped to 96 per cent of all calls.

She agrees with Sgt. Earl that the increase in calls was due to the pandemic.

"The wear and tear of isolation and all of the stress and changes due to the pandemic caught up with a number of individuals and families," she said.

She thinks part of the increase may also be due to more awareness about Mobile Crisis, and because it's becoming more acceptable to talk about mental health issues.

The vulnerable persons unit also works with Saskatoon Hub — a model that involves police working with other agencies to identify individuals or families facing elevated risks.

The report says mental health is the leading risk factor for individuals or families facing elevated risks. From 2017-19, the other top risk factors were drugs, criminal involvement, housing and alcohol.

In 2020, drugs and alcohol were replaced as top risk factors by "basic needs" and "missing school."

Field said that finding is reflected in the types of calls Mobile Crisis has been receiving. 

"If people were already in a distressed situation with income and making ends meet, the pandemic exacerbated that situation."

Field said Mobile Crisis is trying to understand whether this increased volume of calls is permanent, or whether it's tied directly to the pandemic and will slow down once the emergency is over.

Either way, she said the impacts of the pandemic will be long-lasting.

"There's going to be a recovery period, a period of returning to a quality of life and more of a mental health and emotional balance, and we'll need all hands on deck to make that happen."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

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