New agreement will keep mental health patients, police out of ER

The Windsor Police Service and Windsor Regional Hospital have entered into an agreement that will help shorten the time police and mental health patients spend in the emergency room.

Memorandum of understanding to shorten emergency room wait

Peggy Dwyer says the agreement is a positive development, but a lot more needs to change to help mental health patients and their families.

The Windsor Police Service and Windsor Regional Hospital have entered into an agreement that will help shorten the amount of time police and mental health patients spend in the emergency room. 

Police Chief Al Frederick told CBC News police are often tied up responding to mental health calls. 

"It occurs every day," he said. "On the higher-end days, we have four or five cases, simultaneous or consecutive. Sometimes, our officers are at the hospital for the majority of their shift. [If] the person is missing, we could also spend hours searching for that person. We find them, apprehend them, transport them to hospital. It's a huge drain on our resources." 

Just last month, Windsor police officers responded to five "high-risk mental health calls" in a seven-hour period. As many as eight patrol units were involved with one of the calls, logging a total of 28 police hours.

Last June, the Windsor Police Service said it responds to eight mental health crisis calls a day.

Nationally, a Statistics Canada report released at that time said one in five police interactions deal with someone suffering from mental health disorders or a substance abuse problem.

Cases prioritized

The "memorandum of understanding" between the two institutions is an attempt to alleviate that, get the patient to a doctor faster and shorten the amount of time police officers spend at the hospital. 

The admissions process will be expedited through a one-page form the officer fills out. Once the officer brings the patient to the hospital, staff will prioritize these cases by having doctors review the information on the form first. 

"It explains how the patient is presenting, what the officer's observations were," said Frederick. "It will help the doctor make the assessment first [based on the form], rather than waiting two or three hours [to see the patient]. That will give [the doctor] a head start." 

Jonathan Foster, Windsor Regional Hospital's director for mental health, said a doctor will then see the patient, and decide whether to admit the patient for care, or discharge him or her. 

"With every person we discharge from the hospital, we try to get them to community partners," he said. That includes the Canadian Mental Health Association. 

"[The agreement] makes really clear how to work with police, it give us timelines and it gives us good accountability on both sides," said Foster. "It makes sure we're supporting our police partners to help them get back into the community as fast as possible."

Frederick said officers can spend anywhere between a half hour to four or five hours in the emergency room. 

Peggy Dwyer has had to call police to help with two family members. She doesn't want to talk specifics, but says she has witnessed her own family taking up a lot of police time.

"He finally got to the psych ward but it was full. No beds,' she said. "Then police got to leave. It took a goodly amount of time, about 12 to 16 hours." 

The hospital told CBC News it wants to cut that time down. 

"We found, on average, the police are spending about 70 minutes in our emergency department," said Dr. Raj Basker, the chief of psychiatry at Windsor Regional Hospital. "With this agreement, we're hoping it will be closer to 25 minutes. We're really excited about this." 

Mental health focus

Windsor is one of the first cities in Ontario to address these wait times. Hamilton, along with a few OPP regions have a similar system as well. 

Frederick said he's proud the local institutions can all work together to come up with solutions to address rising mental health cases require a police response. 

"There's going to be a need for all of it," he said. "How it interconnects is still unfolding. It's a restructuring of our approach of mental health. COAST, the Transitional Stability Centre, now the M.O.U. Just two short years ago we didn't have any of this, so it's a fantastic step in the right direction."

The Transitional Stability Centre is part of Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare and will offer a community-orientated day and outreach program, based on voluntary participation by the client.

It is slated to open in May on Ouellette Avenue. 

The centre will provide support to people seeking help in managing their mental health and addiction symptoms.

Dwyer is watching all the changes to mental health services in the city. She says they're good first steps, but a lot more needs to change. 

"The police get to leave and they get prioritized. That's excellent," she said. "But the same cycle happens—admitted to the psych ward. Medication. Counselled. They let him go way too quickly. To me, it's like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery."