Mental illness is not a criminal activity, but it does account for many calls to police, and now the Regina Police Service has a dedicated team to call for back-up when people are in crisis.
Sgt. Colleen Hall and Jess Barre are excited to make up the two-person Police and Crisis Team (PACT). Sgt. Hall is a 22-year veteran of the RPS and Barre is a professional mental health and social worker with a background in addictions services. They have been working together as partners since September, already making contact with 41 people and identifying 99 others who may need their help to get access to mental health or addictions services.
Hall says they are often called to help people who are threatening to harm themselves. Sometimes the cases are not quite as clear, the call might start as a domestic dispute or even a break and enter.
“As we unravel and remove the layers of what’s going on, we might find that there might indeed be a mental health or addictions issue,” Hall explained.
The team spends as much time as they need to talking to the individual in crisis and forming a plan to help them access the right kind of services. Halls says the idea is to build relationships with the people they help and sometimes they can respond to a call immediately when they recognize the person in crisis.
Hall says her passion for helping people with mental health issues comes from a very personal place.
“Personally, it’s something that’s very close to my heart, I have family members,” she said, trailing off. “It’s just work that I’ve always wanted to do.”
She jumped at the opportunity to become the mental health liaison officer, noting the work that is being done across the country as police forces recognize that mental health issues have not been handled well in the past.
“With family experiences, the frustrations that I felt and the things that I saw would have helped me and my family at times of crisis were the things that I wanted to work towards,” she said. “Luckily we have a supportive station here and a service that is willing to move forward and look at things differently as well as the health region.”
Barre was also thrilled to learn about the partnership, saying this kind of collaboration with police was a dream she had when she was studying social work. When asked if the situations are ever frightening as a civilian, she replied that she is simply happy o help.
“I get more excited to help people because a lot of people will present as maybe you know, a scary situation, but when – Colleen used the word unravel – when we investigate, when we build a rapport, these are just people like any of us that have some more barriers that we want to help them overcome so they can get the help that they need.”
Barre adds that many people have had negative experiences in the past with police, so she helps them understand that they are there to help.
“I try to tell them that Colleen is here, Sgt. Hall is in place, she’s somebody that does care, she does have the time – not that other officers don’t,” she said. “We are in this position specifically to address your needs, whereas maybe officers don’t have the time. They can’t be expected to be social workers, nurses, counselors, addictions support, so we’re here.”
Regina Police Chief Troy Hagen says any police chief across the country will tell you that an alarming number of calls to police are linked to mental health or addictions issues. Before PACT, police officers had two options – take the person into custody for the night, or take them to the emergency room which isn’t really set up to deliver those specialized services. He hopes the new partnership can redirect people away from the justice system by getting them the real help they need.
“There’s a lot of people out there that have not entered the healthcare system for example, and have had contact with our police service on some occasions many, many times,” he said. “Without that linkage, unfortunately some people fall through the cracks. I think that’s going to be one of the greatest benefits here, is that no longer will some people suffer in isolation and despair.”