SWAT-style medical teams helping defuse mental health crises
Angela Mulholland, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, March 14, 2013 10:06PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 14, 2013 11:32PM EDT
Thousands of times each week, Canadians suffering from mental health crises call 911 for help. But the first responders who come to their door -- usually firefighters or police -- are often ill-equipped to help them.
Now, taking a page from police-inspired SWAT teams, some communities in Canada are experimenting with a way of handling such emergencies by creating 24-hour emergency response teams of mental health specialists who know how to get patients the kind of care they need.
London, Ont., is one Canadian city that recently set up such a service and it‘s already proving a success.
Since last November, people with psychiatric or psychological health problems are now able to call for help either directly to the specialized team or via 911 to access care more efficiently.
Instead of police being dispatched, counsellors and social workers from the Canadian Mental Health Association respond to offer solutions. In many cases, there is no need for a trip to the hospital.
“It’s like a house call for mental health, where people come to where you are, where you need it,” says Michele Van Beers, the managing director of the Canadian Mental Health Association of London and Middlesex.
“They haven’t broken the law, they don’t need to go in the hospital; they just need to have somebody help them with their crisis right now.”
Van Beers says it’s not just people who have serious psychiatric disorders or who are suicidal who call.
“It is also the woman at home with the child suffering from postpartum depression. It could be the university student who is completely overwhelmed. It could be the father who has anxiety because he has lost his job,” she says.
Kristy Reece, a team leader of the London Mobile Response Team, says it appears there was a real need for this service in her community. “There is certainly a demand for service. In the first 89 days of service, we had 229 calls,” she says.
Last year, police officers in London responded to 1,700 calls alone from those suffering mental health issues.
London resident Savanna (who asked that her last name not be used) has struggled with severe mood swings for years. The 24-year-old says each time the police were called during one of her crises, they'd bring her to the local hospital’s crowded emergency department, where the solutions were temporary.
But a recent call to the mobile mental health team quickly got her the counselling and medication she needed.
“They can open doors quicker, in a sense. They can get you into outreach or counselling quicker than the hospitals,” Savanna says.
Reece says the response team also avoids the need for a police visit, which often further escalates a crisis.
“The police aren't the right place to go for crisis intervention. But patients had no other options,” she says.
“So now that the team is in operation, these clients are not ending up in the emergency room, they are not ending up being charged. We are able to de-escalate the situation as it is happening and link them with other services.”
Similar emergency response units are in place in parts of Toronto, Halifax and elsewhere in Canada, suggesting that this innovative approach to mental health may continue to be copied by communities across the country.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip