SASKATOON – It’s the first number they call as a last resort for family, friends even the person having the mental health crisis. If they have the courage to pick up the phone they call 911.
On Tuesday, Global News took a ride with one of the teams on the other end of those calls to find out why they say criminalizing people who are ill is just wrong.
They are unlike any other team and we meet them at the Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service where they climb into an unmarked police cruiser. A mental health professional by the name of Keri Heikman and Cst. Sarah Arntsen with the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS), a perfect pairing to respond to calls involving someone having a mental health crisis.
“Sometimes we recognize the individual, sometimes if you read a little bit further into the call it might be something that PACT would be suited to attend,” said Arntsen, as we listen from the backseat of the cruiser.
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PACT, otherwise known as the Police and Crisis Team, has two teams in the city using a caring approach in often really complicated and stressful situations.
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“We both come with our unique skill sets, they do have safety as their primary focus being police and mine is the mental health assessment part but we do work very closely,” said Heikman, a member of PACT, a crisis worker with a background in social work who will cross reference a name on her laptop as calls come into the cruiser.
When asked if any call hit home for the two of them, Arntsen recalled a crisis that would be a first for her in her 10 years of service with the force.
“We talked a woman off the bridge one day.”
The team through the use of time is able to build a key connection with those in crisis.
“I remember sitting in the car with her and instead of taking her directly back to the hospital we sat with her and we talked about things and shared stories and what was going on and what brought her to being on the bridge,” added Arntsen.
The initiative was introduced in June 2014 as the police force increasingly encountered calls involving mental health concerns.
“They simply have a better understanding of the various mental concerns that are out there,” said SPS central division Staff Sgt. AJ Chevli.
Every year, 5,000 calls are made to Saskatoon police involving someone in mental distress. The goal is to divert them from ending up behind bars into the care of the right resources.
“If we’re dealing with an illness, we want to treat it as an illness,” said Heikman.
Arntsen agreed. “We truly do care about these individuals that we dealing with and we’re invested in making sure that they get not only the help in the immediate moment but in the long-term.”
Since the program’s launch, approximately five arrests a month have been avoided and 40 per cent of clients in crisis have been referred to primary care or community supports.
Not only are the teams saving the overall system money, some six figures, they’re helping people through their darkest hours.
“Early intervention and the right intervention and a holistic response all do save lives,” said Rita Field, executive director at Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service.
According to Heikman, when a client is in a crisis every step can feel insurmountable but she’s more than happy to help them climb that mountain to recovery.
“You see some really amazing resilience in the individuals that we get to come across in the work so it’s a pretty special position.”