Compassionate Mental Health Response

By Ron Fanfair, Toronto Police Service Published: 9 a.m. December 11, 2019

Constable Paul Regan joined the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT) program six years ago after seeing his friend, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, treated with dignity by police officers who took him into custody.

A group of peole holding plaques
Constable Paul Regan, RN Sivi Joachim, Constable Sarah Dowdell and RN Lisa Pritchard were honoured for their work on Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams

“When I thought about my good friend and how well he was treated by Toronto Police, I wanted to see if there was a way I could impact lives in the community I work by helping someone to get the assistance they desperately need,” said the 52 Division officer who is in his 14th year with the Service. “Ever since I got into the program, all the work I have done has been extremely rewarding.”

Regan was the recipient of the MCIT Excellence Award for a police officer.  MCITs, which partner a mental health nurse and a specially trained police officer to respond to situations involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, are available throughout the city.

The inaugural awards presentation took place on December 5 at 11 Division.

Starting his policing career at 12 Division, Regan was assigned to the Transit Patrol before transferring to 52 Division 11 years ago. Prior to joining the Service, he was a videographer.

S/Sgt. Daniel Martin nominated Regan for award because of his advocacy for the program within the police service and in the community.

“Paul regularly delivers training to mental health groups and hosts meetings and lectures to improve the awareness of mental health-related issues,” said Martin. “He was responsible for starting the MCIT exposure program highlighting to fellow officers what the program does, how it can assist frontline police and how we deal with people in crisis. His personal commitment to the evolution of training and development for the program is a true reflection of his passion for the program and ensuring it gets better with each developmental opportunity. He’s solution-focussed and approaches each interaction with those in crisis in a professional and caring way.”

For the last 19 years, the MCITs have been responding to calls involving people in mental health crisis, including thoughts of suicide or self-harm threats, distorted or psychotic thinking, anxiety and overwhelming depression.

The officer and the nurse assess an individual's specific needs, provide intervention and support at the scene, de-escalate the situation and ensure the person is connected to appropriate services. 

The MCIT also provide a secondary response to 9-1-1 calls involving people experiencing a psychiatric or emotional crisis that requires intervention.

Sivi Joachim, who has been a nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital for the last 14 years, was presented with the MCIT Excellence Award for a health care professional.

Leah Dunbar, the MCIT Project Manager who nominated Joachim for the award, said the nurse has made a lasting and positive impact on MCIT clients and their families in 51 and 52 Divisions.

“Sivi approaches each client with a calm and compassionate demeanour which I experienced first-hand on a ride along,” Dunbar said. “Her focus is always on what is in the best interest of the client and she takes the time to listen and provide her assessment in a professional, but empathetic manner. In addition to her frontline dedication, she contribute to the overall betterment of the program by actively taking part in training session, engaging with speakers and asking questions. She also makes suggestions for training topics that would be of use to the MCIT officers and nurses.”

Dunbar highlighted a call for help that demonstrates Joachim’s compassion and commitment.

“It was for a woman who had threatened to kill herself and when the team arrived at her home, they found her exiting her apartment and headed into the stairwell,” said Dunbar. “This particular stairwell was filled with used drug paraphernalia, powder residue from bed bug extermination, garbage and human waste. But Sivi didn’t hesitate to step into the stairwell and treat the client with all of the respect and care that every human deserves.”

Over a half hour, Joachim made the client feel comfortable enough to tell her most pressing issues, the ones that were causing her to wish to end her life. 

“Sivi wrote a letter for the woman, who was functionally illiterate, to send to her incarcerated son, helped her get in touch with various agencies that can support her needs and also assisted her with making a plan to deal with her short and long-term needs. All of this was done while Sivi was sitting on the stairwell steps.”

Joachim represented the MCIT program at the Crisis Intervention Team international conference in Seattle last August where she co-facilitated a presentation on the evolution of the MCIT program.

Consts. Regan and David Hinchcliffe, of 51 Division, who work closely with Joachim, nominated her for a Nursing Hero Award

“As MCIT officers, we have the great pleasure to work with and learn from Sivi,” they wrote in the nomination. “Though there are so many ways that her work with the public is exemplary, we feel it is her ability to make each person that we interact with feel so important, to feel like they deserve all of the care and support we can offer, that truly defines why Sivi is a nursing hero.” 

Const. Sarah Dowdell, of 32 Division, and Lisa Pritchard of North York General (NYGH) Awards were the Team Award winners.

Since 2014, NYGH has partnered with Toronto Police in the MCIT program.

Pritchard, who enjoys working with police, was honoured to be called upon a year ago by Chief Mark Saunders to speak at a community meeting about her role as an MCIT member. 

“It was a real honour,” she said. “Our role is essentially to serve the community, so I was happy to oblige.”

Pritchard relishes providing a community response to individuals experiencing a crisis.

Responding to a suicide call in October 2018, she found a 15-year-old youth sitting on the top floor of a staircase railing with one end of a rope tied to the railing and the other to his neck.

Pritchard spent almost 50 minutes engaging the troubled teenager who agreed to accompany police officers to the hospital.

“This is just one example of many in which the skills of this team have been displayed,” said Acting S/Sgt. Jonathan Collin who was one of the nominators. “In addition to their exemplary MCIT skills, both Sarah and Lisa have displayed unparalled work ethic and dedication. This includes seeking courses to broaden their knowledge, an impeccable attendance record and a willingness to work additional hours and change shifts if necessary. Even though Sarah is stationed out of 33 Division, she ensures there is clear and consistent communication with 32 Division supervisors.”

Collin said the team deliver the compassion, empathy and well-informed care required to be successful in the role.

“They have both displayed a high level of adaptability and critical-thinking skills required to assist people in crisis,” he added. “I have received nothing but praise from clients and family members concerning their contacts.”

Maryann O’Hearne, the Nurse Manager at North York General Hospital (NYGH), was a member of the selection committee that hired Dowdell and Pritchard.

“In their interviews, they shared their experiences both professional and personal in dealing with individuals who suffer from mental illness,” she said. “Their genuine warmth and caring personalities provide an extra layer of professionalism and skills that cannot be learned. It’s who they are. I believe that this particular pairing is responsible for the successful implementation of the MCIT program at NYGH.”

Supt. David Rydzik said the work that MCITs do is far-reaching and making a lasting impact.

“Not only are you saving lives, but you are changing lives,” he told members. “I get to see it because I get the letters and emails that come in talking about the work that you do. Strangers from outside Canada write in, saying they couldn’t believe the service they received from the officer and nurse for a daughter who was in crisis. They say it doesn’t happen where they are from. The least we could do was recognize the amazing work you are doing.”

Every police division in the city is covered by the MCIT program launched in November 2000. Of the 10 MCIT teams, seven are operational seven days a week for 10 hours while three are operational four days a week.

A total of 17 officers and 35 nurses are assigned full-time to the program.

Last year, the MCIT responded to nearly 6,000 crisis calls.

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