PRESCOTT- Police are trained and equipped to handle almost any situation they come across, but over and over again, they are called to respond to people with mental health problems, and their hands are tied.
That's why the Grenville County Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police has partnered with the Brockville General Hospital's Mental Health Crisis Team for a ride-along program that will untie officers' hands.
"A large number of our calls deal with mental health and addiction," says Constable Suzanne Runciman, community mobilization officer for the Grenville OPP.
The ride-along program was first initiated in this region by the Leeds County OPP, which modeled the initiative after a similar arrangement in the City of Hamilton, and last June the Grenville County OPP got involved as well.
Quite often, a police officer will respond to a call either from or about a person with mental health issues, but unless that person is a danger to himself or to others, there is nothing the police can do but leave and wait until another call comes in from or about that individual, which is usually what happens.
"People are calling us because they don't know who else to call," says Runciman.
The partnership between the police and the hospital now gives officers another option. The police can follow up with troubled residents who come to their attention and offer them real assistance. When an officer responds to such a call, the case can be passed along to Runciman, who will then make an appointment to visit with the resident alongside a member of the BGH Mental Health Crisis Team.
"It gives me a chance to do the same kind of assessment we'd do if the individual showed up at the emergency room," says David, a social worker and a member of the Mental Health Crisis Team who prefers his last name not be used.
Runciman and David will come for a visit and sit with the individual to find out what's going on and how best to help. The pair come in an unmarked police car, and Runciman is not in uniform during these visits, so neighbours will have no reason to wonder or ask questions.
"It's a friendly, less-threatening way to help people who want help," says Runciman.
That the residents must "want help" is key, as this initiative is entirely voluntary. Neither the police nor the mental health crisis team can compel people to accept the help, and there are no legal ramifications to accepting or rejecting the offer.
Since June, such follow-ups have been offered to 55 people and been accepted by 28.
"I think we've helped a lot of people," says Runciman.
During the home visit, David can do an assessment and make referrals, recommending different services in the area and helping the individual access the most appropriate medical or psychological help. With permission, he can also contact the client's relatives and family physician, apprising those charged with the client's care of his or her condition. David can also identify emergent mental health problems and get people help before their condition worsens.
The Mental Health Crisis Team at the BGH has eight full-time staff - five registered nurses and three social workers - and operates a 24/7 crisis line. Two of the team's staff have been assigned to the police ride-along program - David and a registered nurse named Shawna. People in Grenville County taking advantage of the program could see either one, but both can provide the help a troubled person might need.
"The whole idea is to give the best service possible," says David. "So, we're highly flexible with what works best for the individual."
In many cases, officers responding to domestic dispute or mischief calls will find themselves confronting somebody with mental health issues, but they can also answer calls related to elderly citizens dealing with dementia. There, too, the mental health crisis team member can help, conducting a psychogeriatric assessment and getting the person, and his or her family, whatever help might be required.
The partnership also helps the police, reducing the number of times officers have to respond to the same person or situation, and relieving them of the frustration that necessarily comes from attending a home over and over again knowing you can do nothing to help.
Now, with the help of the Mental Health Crisis Team, the police can offer individuals in such cases real, tangible assistance and can end the vicious circle that so often entangles not only the troubled residents themselves but the responding officers, too.