It’s not often a near-stranger offers you a hug for the work you do while you’re in line at the supermarket.
Mental-health nurse Shelagh Scanga, who partners with police constables as part of the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT), had just that experience while off-duty.
“I was in the grocery store and this guy was looking at me. I was thinking to myself ‘Do I know him?’ and he kept looking at me. When I was at the check-out, he approached me and asked ‘Do you work for the city?’ I said ‘Can I help you?” He told me ‘you came to my house’, which was when I finally recognized him. “Yes I do remember!” He replied ‘I just want to say thank-you so much. I was in the hospital for a couple of days after you brought me there and I want to thank you for being so professional, I really appreciated it.’ Then he asked if he could hug me. It was a nice, pleasant interaction. I appreciate that he said something. I was so touched by that. He didn’t have to do that. He felt comfortable enough in his experience and he was able to convey that.”
Scanga, a St. Joseph’s Health Centre nurse, had responded to the call with Constable Robert Koops. The man’s wife was worried about her husband’s mental health and obtained a Form 2 from a justice of the peace, which obligates the police to apprehend someone and bring them to hospital for a mental-health assessment.
Arriving on scene, Scanga and Koops joined Primary Response Officers in assuring an agitated and confused man that the people in uniform at his door were there to give him the help he needs, taking the time to have the man come with them voluntarily.
It is a typical assignment for an MCIT, in what is a very atypical job. The teams, spread across the city and affiliated to hospitals with mental-health programs, are made up of a mental-health nurse and police officer. They respond to people in crisis, whether a call from passers-by who see a homeless man ranting on a street corner, or a mother trying to get help for a daughter battling suicidal thoughts.
Scanga and Koops, who work out of 14 Division in the city’s west end, can be called to a shelter along Bathurst St. or a million-dollar home in Little Italy to help people in their darkest moments.
“I really can’t say there is a typical person or that they come from a different background. We respond to calls everywhere, for all ages,” Koops says. “Doctor’s offices, schools, homes, shelters.”
MCITs are secondary responders, working with Primary Response Officers to speak to a person in crisis, their families and assess whether they need to go to the hospital immediately.
“I think a big factor is that we have the time. Many people are unable to process what they’re being asked. These are stressful events,” Scanga says, of helping someone realize at times that police have a duty to bring them to hospital because of a court order or for their own safety. “I try to give them all the information I can. I let them know the next steps. I try to do a brief learning session on the healthcare system and how they can access help in the future. At the time, it can seem very chaotic.”
Koops says his role as a police officer is to clear the way for Scanga.
“I make sure the situation is safe, she is safe, and I let her do an assessment,” he says. “We want the same thing – to get the person the help they need.”
Scanga says she works hand-in-hand with her police partners and all the officers at a scene, never interrupting an officer who has developed a good rapport with a person in crisis.
“We bounce things off each other,” Scanga says, of her role in assessing whether a client needs to go to the hospital. “We most often agree but I understand when we don’t. A police officer’s role, his liabilities under the criminal justice system, are much different from mine.”
A recent shift saw them checking on the welfare of an elderly woman whose family doctor was concerned about a voicemail she left for him recently. They were able to Facetime with the doctor from the woman’s apartment, leaving the doctor satisfied she was otherwise feeling fine despite the odd voicemail.
“We’re not apprehending everyone we come across,” said Koops, noting just because a person calls to say someone is yelling on the street doesn’t mean the police will come and remove them from the neighbourhood. “People have a right to live with their illness.”
Scanga says police officers have demonstrated often to her that they understand the plight of those struggling with their mental health that they encounter in their work.
“It’s everything from the language they employ to the empathy they display for people in crisis,” says Scanga. “An officer told me about being less physical with a person knowing that they struggled with a mental illness. This is training and more information and awareness out there.”