The calls for more police funding to be redirected to services such as mental-health programs continue to grow, but RCMP officers and psychiatric nurses have been working side by side in Red Deer for almost a decade.
In 2011, the Red Deer Primary Care Network, in partnership with the RCMP, started the Police and Crisis Team as a pilot program, which expanded to two teams in 2013.
RCMP Sgt. Karyn Kay said it has also gone from being a secondary to a primary response team, so they are often the first on the scene in times of a mental health crisis.
“We’re very lucky in Red Deer to have a team and to have a psychiatric nurse that can help make some diagnoses to assist our members to take them to the hospital, and just to help point their investigation in the right direction,” Kay said.
“Maybe being part of the judicial process might not be the best option for a certain client that we’re working with, so they’re able to help us make proper assessments.”
Each team is made up of one RCMP officer and a psychiatric nurse. A team is available Monday to Thursday, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Kay said the work is specialized, so if a team officer is away, they aren’t often replaced, so more trained members would be helpful.
“There’s always going to be a crisis where police intervention is required that other agencies can’t help — where there’s a risk involved, where there are weapons involved, where grievous bodily harm is the case. The police would be, of course, responsible to assist in those situations,” Kay said.
John Obelienius, a registered psychiatric nurse who is a member of the team, said the number of calls the group responds to has increased each year. In 2019, RCMP dispatch received 2,278 mental health calls and the team responded to 1,253 of them, as well as direct calls to the office.
He said they most frequently deal with calls about people having thoughts of suicide, depression and those struggling with stressors in their lives.
“A lot of times when we see people, it’s very acute. They are right in the moment,” Obelienius said.
The team figures out how to stabilize the situation and determines if there is a risk to the person or others. The person may be taken to the hospital under the Mental Health Act, or dealt with on the scene.
“I think the program has worked well because it pairs a clinical professional with a RCMP officer. RCMP officers don’t receive a lot of training when it comes to mental health.”
Obelienius said the team has become embedded in the community, judging from feedback from community agencies, but the general public likely isn’t even aware of the initiative, he said.
“Unless a person is directly connected to a mental health service of some sort … I would say they have no clue that we exist.”