Psychiatric nurses inside the Royal Canadian Police Operational Command Center in Regina receive 911 calls from people in mental distress and train front-line officers as part of a pilot project in Saskatchewan that police say is the first of its kind in Canada.
Nurses have access to an individual’s electronic health records and history – off-limits to police – when they talk to a person in a mental health crisis or when they assist RCMP officers in real time during a mental health emergency.
“We are working with mental health professionals to provide a much better service than we have been in the past,” RCMP Sgt said. Burton Jones. “We’ve been trained to help, you know, how to de-escalate situations that involve mental health, but we’re not professionals – we know that.”
In 2020, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Saskatchewan received a total of 4,640 mental health calls – when the caller says the emergency is related to their mental health – at its command center. In the first six months of this year, it received 2,474 such calls.
Jones said that in many of these cases, police officers arrested the stricken person under the county mental health services law and then supervised them in a hospital emergency room for hours.
The 12-month trial program – which began on May 31 – is already showing promising results. Of the first 50 phone calls received, Jones said, 17 were handled with a response different from normal police practice.
“The police should not have arrested and should not have taken this person to the hospital in handcuffs or to our cells in handcuffs,” he said. “The nurse was able to step in, do the assessment, make the referral, and connect them to community resources; so he never had to go our old-fashioned way of arresting, going to the hospital, sitting and waiting.”
Two nurses – staffed by the Saskatchewan Health Authority and contracted with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – are already working inside the command post. They will be joined by two other health care workers to allow the service to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Watch | The National looks at the RCMP pilot project:
Nurses will only verbally share health record information with the police, according to the RCMP, with established procedures keeping police, medical and personal information confidential.
“The ultimate goal is to share as little information as possible, but share enough to better support people’s health in crises and get the help they need,” a RCMP spokesperson said by email.
‘A step in the right direction’
Across Canada, a number of police departments have introduced specialized units that bring police officers together with mental health professionals on the ground. But this level of service is not currently possible in rural and remote areas, the RCMP said, and they believe this phone approach will help those who live outside cities.
The pilot is modeled on a system in the UK, where mental health professionals with access to medical records are placed within regional centers to advise officers on the street and answer calls from the public.
“I was thrilled to see this being trialled in Canada,” said former British health minister Norman Lamb, who spoke to CBC News from his home in Norwich, England. “You can’t completely remove the police from the equation… but the important thing is [police] need help.”
The pilot has also been praised by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), which has long advocated for less reliance on police when it comes to mental health emergencies.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Johnny Morris, chief executive of BC’s division at CMHA. “We really need to position our services to respond to the health response; we’re talking about health after all – mental health – and not sending the police to heart attacks.”
In the northern community of Stanley Mission, 450 kilometers north of Saskatoon, Jonas Hardlot was encouraged by the RCMP’s desire to improve their mental health response.
Last August, Hardlot was in mental distress after coming off a frenzy of drugs and alcohol. Hardlot suffers from depression and anxiety, and at the time, he lost his job, got into a car accident and had disagreements with his loved ones.
He called 811, Saskatchewan’s 24-hour mental health support phone line, but said he got “the escape.”
When he started to cut himself, his mother-in-law called 911.
But the RCMP officer who responded arrived at his door and began yelling at him through the window, threatening to attack with a sledgehammer. Captured by Hardlotte on mobile video.
Watch | An RCMP officer enters Jonas Hardlot’s home with an axe:
Hardlot said the officer, who has since been reassigned, responded with “outright aggression,” reminding him why he doesn’t trust the police when he’s in mental distress.
“There have been people who have been shot just for being mentally disturbed, and the officers don’t know, ‘K, this guy is into drugs and alcohol, but maybe that’s just a cry for help,'” he said.
More support to help the police
Carrie Rigby Wilcox said she’s not “anti-police,” but she’s spent the past two and a half years regretting her 911 call.
In December 2018, her 27-year-old son Stephen Rigby was threatening to kill with a gun.
Rigby Wilcox, who lives in a rural area outside of Saskatoon, called 911. The RCMP responded at first, and the Saskatoon police followed when Stephen drove towards the outskirts of town, where he was eventually shot.
“I called 911 for help, to keep my son alive — and in the end, it just didn’t happen,” she said.
According to testimony in the coroner’s investigation, officers shot Stephen after realizing he had pointed a gun in their direction.
Rigby Wilcox said that while health records showed Stephen had suicidal intent, and spoke of provoking police to shoot him, the officers who were at the scene on the night of Stephen’s death did not have that information.
Last month, the coroner’s investigation made several recommendations to improve both the Saskatchewan health system and police services as a result.
Rigby Wilcox is convinced that a person’s health history should be readily available to dispatchers and first-class officers; She said she approves of this pilot project, as it will provide more access to this health information.
“If they had this opportunity to understand that this was a possible suicide by the policeman, they might have approached it differently,” she said.
Rigby-Wilcox said she understands police are being put in difficult situations and wants them to have more support. She also said that she does not expect this program to be a pilot for long.
“I see it as something that will continue to grow and remain part of the system. It has to be.”
While Rigby-Wilcox will never know if this pilot helped save her son’s life, she said she hopes it will save others.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available. For emergencies or crises, call 911.
You can also call the Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Line toll-free, 24/7, by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645 or Online chat.
You can contact Regina’s suicide line for mobile crisis services at 306-525-5333 or the Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.
You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.
The Children’s Help Phone can also be reached at 1-800-668-6868, or you can access live chat counseling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.