New Cornwall mental health crisis team already getting results

Mental health nurse Serena Menard and Const. Sherri Cameron, a vulnerable sector officer, are Cornwall's new mental health crisis team. They were introduced to the police board on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Also shown is Cornwall Police Association President Dave MacLean. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – A new Cornwall police-led crisis team, focusing on freeing up police and hospital resources dealing with mental health cases, is already seeing results.

And the need is there, Cornwall police Insp. Shawna Spowart (now deputy chief-designate) highlighted to the police board Wednesday morning, with a 155 per cent jump in mental health calls in the last decade and a 65 per cent increase alone between 2016 and 2017.

Spowart also introduced the newly formed Vulnerable Sector Mobile Acute Response Team (VSMART). It’s based on a similar team in Brantford, where the rapid-response unit assists officers on mental health calls by trying to deescalate a crisis and avoiding an arrest.

“What we really hope for this team is that they will respond to our crisis calls. They will improve our ability to deescalate. The mental health worker has a direct line to a psychiatrist which is something we never would have had,” Spowart said.

In a little over two weeks, the Cornwall team has already seen police apprehensions on mental health calls drop to 42.9 per cent from 81 per cent and hospital wait times for those cases slashed from 2 hours, 46 minutes to 1 hour and 45 minutes. “The early statistics are really good,” Spowart said. “This is pretty exciting.”

“So, as you can well imagine, if you incorporate an officer’s salary, for every apprehension it’s got an overall cost of $75,000,” Spowart told the police board Wednesday. “It puts our police officers back on the road, doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

The two-person team is comprised of Const. Sherri Cameron, a vulnerable sector officer, and Serena Menard, an ER nurse who is now an on-call assault and sexual abuse nurse and part of the mental health crisis team.

As for front-line officers, as part of an improved vulnerable sector strategy, officers are also equipped with a software called Health IM. An officer answers 33 questions on their observations on a call. It takes about five minutes and that information is relayed to the Cornwall Community Hospital in order to speed up assessment and treatment by doctors.

The Health IM application has been used since July 16 and the crisis team has been working in the city since Aug. 20.

When VSMART isn’t responding on calls, it will be doing preventative work, such as rating people who may be a future risk, such as people after a marital breakdown.

The crisis team is being paid for by an Ontario Proceeds of Crime Front-line Policing grant – $160,000 over two years. The grant covers 24 hours per week for calls while the vulnerable sector officer is a fully paid position.

“I think there’s no doubt that the service we’re going to be providing in Cornwall is better than what we were doing and I think that our officers will be put to better use, doing what they have been (doing),” Spowart concluded.

Police board chairman Andre Rivette said he couldn’t think of a better place to spend $160,000. Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy said he “liked the plan” and the fact results are already coming in.

A formal signing event for the Ontario government funding is in the works.