By Heather Killen
An Annapolis based initiative aims to set the standard for how police can support and assist those in crisis.
RCMP Constable David Fairfax said the Annapolis detachment began developing a protocol to support and assist people in crisis about eight years ago. Even before Howard Hyde’s 2007 accidental death while in police custody, police in Annapolis County were already considering solutions.
“Long before the Hyde inquiry, the management here saw a need to direct special attention to people in crisis,” he said. “It seemed we were getting a lot of calls from people in crisis and we decided to look at how we could better address this.”
Over the last 20 years, the government has been moving towards de-institutionalization, meaning there are fewer treatment facilities than in the past. Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville is the main treatment facility for mental health services here in the Valley.
The farther away from the main center patients are, the longer the wait times are for mental health services. A toll-free telephone number introduced a few years provides 24-hour support to individuals at home.
With the medications now available to treat mental illness, the assumption is that as long as people remain on their meds, their symptoms will be under control. Const. Fairfax added that unfortunately people go off their medications for a variety of reasons.
In some cases the prescription’s side effects are unpleasant. In other cases people find they can’t afford the pills. So a stronger support network is needed to give people in isolated areas more support they need to remain well.
Police officers were often tasked to transport individuals to hospital and then wait with them until they were admitted for treatment, he said. After long wait times at the emergency room, the individuals were no longer in a critical emotional state and were often released.
The emotional cycle would often resume after a short time and officers could receive multiple calls regarding the same individual. Const. Fairfax said that John Ennis, the staff sergeant at that time, tasked him to look into how other regions were handling similar challenges.
They considered models of rural mental health service delivery being used in the US, Halifax Regional Municipality, and Cape Breton before deciding on their own collaborative approach, he said.
In Halifax a team of mental health workers and specially trained police officers provide mobile, 12- hour mental health services. This dedicated team provides an outreach service that can visit individuals and then if needed, transport them to hospital.
In Cape Breton, officers work out of the hospital to support mental health services, working in partnership with social workers. Const. Fairfax said that locally they have developed a Critical Intervention Team (CIT) approach to overcoming the challenges.
This model accepts that traditional police methods, public misconceptions, and a lack of sensitivity in responding to a person in crisis can escalate the situation. Officers are trained to recognize and know how to help to de-escalate a mental health crisis.
The Annapolis detachment trains officers to recognize and respond to a mental health crisis and has built a collaborative community-based partnership that aims to set a standard of professionalism for how people with mental illness are treated within the justice and health care systems.
This approach has been chosen as a two-year pilot project to develop a protocol for service in Nova Scotia. Specially trained officers will respond to the calls from people in mental distress and work in partnership with other professionals.
Through collaborative partnerships with Annapolis Valley Health, officers can call ahead to the emergency room and ensure patients receive priority treatment. They will have access to secure rooms to ensure an individual’s safety and wellbeing.
The project is overseen by a collaborative community-based committee of volunteers. This committee includes police, members of social services, school board members, military police, and various other volunteers from a broad spectrum of disciplines.