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From crisis to connection: How police-community partnerships transform mental health responses

January 31, 2024  By Leif Gregersen

Photo credit: designer491 / Getty

During my teen years, I had a negative attitude towards police and authority figures, even though I was a Sergeant in Air Cadets and very rarely broke the law. Part of what gave me this negative opinion was that when I was 18, I suffered from a severe mental illness and the police were involved in getting me the care and treatment I desperately needed.

Now, as an adult, all I can think of is how grateful I am that, when I was suffering, the officers who were called took me to a hospital, not to jail.

Times are changing, and many police departments and RCMP detachments try to respond to mental health crisis calls differently. There is more training in academic law enforcement programs and police recruit centres regarding mental health and crisis response. In Edmonton, there is a Police and Crisis Team (PACT); this team pairs police officers with mental health workers for mental health calls. Although they are not staffed to respond to every mental health call, they respond to many of them and consult with officers who are responding to mental health calls they can’t get to. Many other major cities have developed similar teams for mental health response.

Now, I have been through the difficult part of my illness where mental health staff were unsure which medications would work for me and what dosages to give. There was also a time when I lived in denial of my illness, which made it very difficult to treat. It took several years and several hospitalizations, but for the most part, I’ve made a full recovery. Now, alongside The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta, I give talks to the Edmonton Police Recruit Training classes, where I present some of the facts of mental illness, before telling my own story of illness and recovery.

In Edmonton, PACT started in 2004 with one team and has continually expanded. Before the partnership between the crisis team and the police, officers would often call the crisis team and vice versa. According to Cst. Brian McCune of the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) who is part of PACT, “It became evident that the calls police were responding to and the calls the crisis team responded to, often involved overlap, which was one of the driving factors in the development of PACT.”

When asked if there was a standard procedure involved in responding to mental health calls, Cst. McCune said, “Policing is a dynamic and ever-flowing profession, and what might be appropriate for one circumstance would be completely inappropriate for another.” He mentioned they also don’t always have the luxury of time.

“In a perfect world, we want to gather as much information on someone as possible,” he stated. “The luxury of working with PACT is that we have a unique opportunity to combine history from the police side and the mental health side to create an informed plan about how to approach and interact with someone. It all comes down to safety. Police across the board will do the best we can with the information we have to maximize safety and mitigate risk. However, there are just so many factors involved that a standard approach is never fully possible.”

Cst. McCune also stated that the need for mental health crisis response has certainly risen in recent years. Factors such as the pandemic, stress over the cost of living, social media, addictions and family dynamics all seem to be a factor.

“It is tough times for a lot of people right now. I also think that as society begins to take the negative stigma off mental health, more and more folks are willing to acknowledge their struggles and report concerns.”

If there was one thing he would ask for most of all to improve the PACT team, Cst. McCune would want more resources. “That is a pretty universal answer that I’m sure every officer in Canada would ask for if they could.”

“We have a unique opportunity to combine history from the police side and the mental health side to create an informed plan about how to approach and interact with someone.” – Cst. Brian McCune

Cst. McCune connects and continues to connect with the community through various roles. I asked him if there was anything he would like to do to connect with members of the public or even psychiatric patients to help maximize the team’s ability to better respond to mental health crisis calls, and he stated:

“I would like to have the opportunity to speak with people who have previously interacted with police in the context of a mental health crisis, so we can better understand how to communicate and try to de-escalate as much as possible in those dynamic situations to meet the goal of keeping both the involved person and the community safe.”

An example of how mental health crisis response changed over the years comes from Aug. 2018. My doctor suggested I try a new medication. Unfortunately, this new medication had worked well for many people, but for me, it didn’t control my psychosis at all. I became very ill in a short period of time.

My situation got out of hand and my father was forced to call the police for help. The officers were kind, and they talked to me like a human being even though I wasn’t making perfect sense to them.

The police followed the suggestions The Schizophrenia Society provided in their presentations. They didn’t focus on what was going through my head, they just tried to keep me calm and helped me to understand that I needed help. They decreased distractions and talked to me slowly and simply, repeating themselves when needed. They showed concern and de-escalated the situation.

As a result, I went to the hospital without incident. I feel I owe my effective treatment and short recovery time to the professional, kind and effective officers who responded to a call for help using proven methods for responding to someone in mental health distress.

Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher and public speaker with 12 books in print.

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