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RCMP expanding partnership with Alberta therapists to respond to mental health calls

RPACTs began operating in Edmonton in 2011 and a recent expansion ensures an RPACT unit covers every RCMP detachment in the province. Credit: RCMP


Alberta RCMP Regional Police and Crisis Teams (RPACTs) are ensuring people in distress get the help they need when they need it most by combining police resources with mental health expertise.

The teams include one RCMP officer and one Alberta Health Services mental health therapist who respond to mental health calls. By working together, they're able to provide the right support for those in crisis.

"These teams leverage the clinical expertise of a mental health therapist and the public safety lens and security provided by an RCMP officer," says S/Sgt. Colette Zazulak, who oversaw the teams before retiring earlier in 2022. "They're able to provide an appropriate response, do a status exam on site, and hopefully stabilize a person in the community with connections to resources."

RPACTs began operating in Edmonton in 2011, serving a handful of detachments in the surrounding area. More teams were added over 10 years and a recent expansion project aims to have an RPACT unit covering every RCMP detachment in the province.

"Having a uniformed police officer paired with a mental health clinician has tremendous benefits for everyone involved in mental health complaints," says RCMP Sgt. Mark Osedowski, who now oversees the RPACT units in Alberta.

More support, less strain

The teams follow up with people whom police previously encountered on a call, respond to referrals from other police officers, and monitor what's happening on daily police patrols in case there's a call they can help with.

"There's quite a lot of work and the teams have to triage to get help to the people with the most need," says Tanya Anderson, a clinical supervisor with Alberta Health Services overseeing the psychologists, clinical social workers, and nurses working with the RPACTs.

When appropriate, the teams help clients and connect them with community resources to avoid a trip to the hospital emergency department. This allows RPACTs to provide timely interventions and reduce the strain on the health care system.

RCMP Cst. Thomas Harris, who works with the RPACT in Edmonton, says working with a mental health therapist can achieve a more effective response as the health care professionals can access medical records including information about medical history, medications, and other factors.

"When you approach a patient and you're concerned about their medical history, you have the advantage of having this extra knowledge that normally only a medical professional would have," says Harris.

A positive partnership

Anderson recalls one case that started as a domestic violence call where the responding officers also learned that there was a mental health component. The RPACT unit responded and after talking with the individuals, connected them with more help.

"We were able to complete an assessment, get the person an appointment with a doctor within a few days and a follow up with a mental health therapist," says Anderson, who's responded to hundreds of calls in her 11 years with the RPACTs. "We were not only able to help with the police side of things, but also those underlying mental health conditions."

By having both policing and clinical expertise on scene, the teams are prepared for the turbulence that can accompany a person in distress.

"Sometimes patients won't react well to the therapist, sometimes they won't react well to me. That's why it's good to have that partnership," says Harris, who responded to mental health calls as a paramedic with the Houston Fire Department in Texas before joining the RCMP. "I do find clients will react a little more co-operatively because they can see we're actually concerned for them as a person and their well-being."

No more waiting game

RPACTs can also help police use their resources more efficiently, especially in rural areas where taking a person in distress to hospital can mean driving and waiting for hours. An RPACT response can allow general duty RCMP officers to spend more time on the road responding to other calls.

"When we have a general duty member working in a small detachment and they're going to take someone to hospital, often they're the only person working. Not only do they have to get someone in to cover the area, they have to drive and wait at the hospital," says Zazulak. "By having police officers responding in the communities they serve and not waiting in hospital waiting rooms, we can make better use of our resources."

Zazulak says the RPACTs work has been well received by the communities they serve and they're always looking at how to improve their responses.

"The teams are out meeting with community leaders, Chiefs and Councils on reserves, and different community agencies to see how we can all work together to improve public safety and meet the needs of those vulnerable people experiencing mental health crisis," says Zazulak.

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