In its first year, Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team proves its worth

This story ran in the Chronicle-Journal on Oct. 1, 2019

Lakehead University 

A pilot project that brings together police, health-care workers and crisis support staff to deal with mental health issues in Thunder Bay is getting rave reviews from its partners, thanks in part to research undertaken by Lakehead University that has shown the benefits of the program as well as areas for improvement.

“We were highly successful in terms of meeting our targets,” Jennifer Hyslop, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Thunder Bay branch, says of the Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team’s initial efforts. “We were extremely pleased with the results of the Lakehead University study. It really spoke to the impact of the program and also gave us some insight into what we can do in next in terms of making sure we’re delivering the service that’s meeting the needs of people having a mental health crisis.”

Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth was equally pleased with results in the first year.

“We fully support the program and appreciate the positive impact the team has on our ability to provide emergency services in Thunder Bay,” she says.

With a $300,000 contribution from the North West LHIN, the JMCRT program sees a mental health crisis response worker summoned to a 911 call to assist police in dealing with a person suffering an issue. The crisis response worker tries to de-escalate the situation and may refer the individual to other care in the community, easing the burden on hospital staff and the police.

The program was launched in June 2018 and an evaluation was conducted by a graduate student, part of Lakehead’s commitment to developing community partnerships.

“We offer supervision and research assistance to the student to collaborate with a community partner,” explains Dr. Jo-Ann Vis, an associate professor in Lakehead’s School of Social Work.

The review by master’s student Ashley Palmer involved focus groups and surveys with Thunder Bay Police officers and communications staff, crisis response workers, Emergency department nursing staff as well as interviews with clients of the program.

“What came out of that is the positive relationships between all the partners,” Palmer explains. “They spoke of how well everyone was working collaboratively.”

Other findings from Palmer’s research:

  • The program was able to provide better and more specific care to the individual;
  • Better use of police resources; officers were able to clear the hospital quicker or not even need to attend there at all;
  • Individuals were connected to other services in the community.

Thunder Bay Police say there were 1,416 incidents where the JMCRT was utilized, of which there were 622 instances where police did not have to also attend the Regional hospital. There were 647 instances where the team was not available, either because it fell outside their hours of operation or they were already at another call.

“This project is a really good example of how we can bridge education and research to a practical level,” Vis says.

There remain, however, challenges. Palmer has suggested improvement, such as: hiring more staff to expand the program beyond 12-hour daily coverage; have the crisis response worker ride along with police rather than wait in an office for a callout; and ongoing mental health training for frontline police and hospital personnel.

“Ashley’s work really complemented the project and gave us some great insight to further support the longevity and need for continuing the partnership,” says Hyslop, adding that the research is being shared with groups across Ontario to develop their own plans.

The program’s future in Thunder Bay is still not assured, though. Funding was for the initial one-year period, which ended March 31. Hyslop says they have submitted a proposal to the North West LHIN for permanent funding. The team continues to operate in the interim.

Continuation of the JMCRT program is important to the Thunder Bay Police Service and to the community as a whole, the police chief says.

“The success of the program is in the fact that persons in crisis are getting the appropriate assistance,” Hauth states. “Given the ongoing challenges of mental health and the high number of calls to police, the use of such an important resource as the JMCRT diverts persons in crisis from being solely in the care of police. There is a clear need to continue and expand the program to provide the community with a much needed service.”

By Julio Heleno Gomes
Research in Action

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