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Experts say more resources and training needed to de-escalate mental health crises

In 2021, Shared Health and the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) announced the Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis (ARCC) pilot project, which saw mental health clinicians and plainclothes officers attend to mental health crises.

The goal was to decrease the use of emergency services for those types of calls, and the year-end report for the project shows it met or surpassed nearly all of its goals.

In 2022, the pilot reduced the number of people police brought to emergency rooms with mental health concerns by 29 per cent, the project report said.

It added 91 per cent of clients stayed in the community after getting mental health support, and 96 per cent of the community agencies the program worked with said it should continue.

In June, the former Progressive Conservative government gave the program $414,000 to expand. But it has faced staffing challenges.

Marion Cooper, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) says it’s a problem across the country.

“The need for mental health services and substance use services has grown hugely, and those services haven’t really matched the growing population needs.”

She said this means some outreach services like Mobile Crisis have been reduced.

Rather than out in communities, Cooper said “they’re actually situated in the Crisis Response Centre as an approach to try and manage the volume that has shown up there.”

She said it shouldn’t have to be one or the other.

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“We have an inadequate system of response,” she said. “How do we want to be responding? How do we want to be supporting people in distress? How do we do that in a way that supports non-violent and supportive approaches, while at the same time recognizing those situations that are very acute, where safety is a real issue?

“It’s all of those things together.”

Shared Health declined Global News’ request for an interview, but said in a statement it hired two new crisis clinicians in October for the ARCC program, and can provide care seven days per week.

Chris Summerville, CEO with the Schizophrenia Society of Canada said the alternative response to people having mental health crises is about de-escalation, which “is all about just going very slow and helping the person to understand that you are there to help them.”

He said the ARCC program and other mental health outreach is much needed, so police are properly trained to help someone having a mental health crisis.

“In approaching a person with a mental health crisis, they’re already in a crisis and you don’t want to create another crisis,” Summerville said.

He added, “We all have to check our attitudes in terms of how we feel about people, their origin, their colour, and if they have a mental illness. So we have to check all those boxes that clear us to be able to do de-escalation.”

This may even come to officers stepping out of uniform.

“People who have a mental health crisis, I mean, they’re already stressed out. Pressured. Scared. Trauma. It can be very traumatic to have a police officer in regular duty clothes approaching an individual,” Summerville said.

He said, “it’s not unusual for new people to Canada, or refugees, newcomers to Canada, to struggle with law enforcement because it’s more militarized where they come from.”

De-escalation is not always fail-proof though, he said. “Unfortunately, there will be a certain percentage — a very small percentage — of people that will be unable to comply with that the officer is asking them to do, and may launch at the officer, or try to attack them.”

Summerville said when this happens, officers “are going to act immediately to defend themselves.” Which can, he said, mean a shot fired.

That can include what happened on New Year’s Eve, with an international student fatally shot by a WPS officer.

“I think we’re a little behind,” when it comes to training police to handle mental health crises, Summerville said. “I think there needs to be more hours of training.”

The WPS declined Global News’ request for an interview about the ARCC program.

— with files from Global’s Iris Dyck

&copy 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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