A little over a year ago, the Grey Bruce branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Owen Sound Police Service teamed up to create a Mobile Mental Health Addiction Response Team (MMHART) in their region, two-plus hours north of Toronto. The team is made up of an urgent response worker from CMHA and a police officer from the Owen Sound force.
The pairing has many positives. By having a mental health professional on hand at a call where someone is struggling psychologically, there is a depth of knowledge that can keep everyone safe. Furthermore, police need effective training in the event that they are called on to assist with a mental health-related incident, and this initiative signifies a remarkable step.
We thought we’d check in with CMHA Grey Bruce to see how the first year went. Jackie Ralph is with their Mental Health and Addiction Services. She is a LivingWorks safeTALK and ASIST trainer and can also lead Mental Health First Aid classes for adults who interact with youth.
Jackie Ralph: We are so extremely proud of our local police services and their commitment to learning more about suicide prevention and safety planning and the need to “hear the story” before simply moving into legal apprehension under the Mental Health Act.
LivingWorks: What used to happen?
JR: Quite a few years ago we were successful in securing funding to roll out an Urgent Response Team (URT) within our agency. This was a mobile crisis team that would go out and provide assessments in the community setting —referrals would come in from local police services heading to a call or they might get called by an emergency room if someone presented in mental health distress.
LW: What has changed?
JR: Our community police services were already big supporters of our Urgent Response workers. But now, under the MMHART program, some of our CMHA staff members are based out of the actual police stations. When there is a mental health related call, one of our urgent response workers is already on site to go out with a designated police officer. The police officers that were designated to that team took part in an ASIST training—they wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible. I give them a lot of credit for that. It was such a positive because this was now skills they could offer their coworkers as well. They could put the word out within the force, hey, you know, we are ASIST trained so we’re happy to talk if you ever need to do that.
An Urgent Response worker and a police officer that are part of the program. Photo courtesy of Grey Bruce CMHA.
LW: Tell us more about the program.
JR: It’s been great. It’s so nice to have our staff there on site at the police station to go out together, rather than being called in after police arrive on scene. The police officers that go with our staff are in plainclothes and they arrive in a plain, unmarked car. That is so important. There can be this underlying feeling that if the police have arrived at my home, it’s because a crime has been committed, or that someone has done something wrong. By having everyone in street clothes, even our URT staff, right away the message is that we are here to help, not to get anyone in trouble. It’s been very well-received by the community.
On top of our trainings, we do a lot of information sharing in the community about our services. It has been so great to be able to let people know, this is a service available in our community. Just like you would call 9-1-1 if someone you know or love needs acute medical care, please think of this program as the same. Our local police services have always let our community know, if you are worried about someone you know and feel they may need acute care, then that is ALWAYS the right time to call.
LW: What are you hearing from other police departments?
JR: The program is not unique to our area and we are proud to be part of the list of communities offering this service. But we also know we are a unique area. We are two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto, that is vast geographically but for the most part, rural. Our largest community is only 20,000 people so we have more smaller communities than urban communities and we have around a dozen police services. But they all work so well together, with many of them sharing the same dispatch centre.
Owen Sound Police Service definitely took the lead in our community being the first one to pilot the ride along option. And then it has been a snowball effect with other police services and our local OPP agencies saying, “Hey! We want this too!”
It honestly has been so good for our community to know our local police services are here to help and they want everyone to be happy and healthy. Our local police officers live and work and play in our communities. They want to be able to help their neighbours, friends, and family members in the best way possible. To read about the program kickoff, click here.
LW: At LivingWorks we are thrilled to see this example of innovative leadership in how police and first responders can help make their communities safer through effective training and partnerships with allied agencies. We look forward to learning more about the results of this initiative, and we hope to see more like it elsewhere! Send your success stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.