Interior Health and the Southeastern District RCMP recently announced a partnership that aims to help people living with mental illness and substance use disorders.
Trail RCMP Sgt. Mike Wicentowich is pleased that the plan will create working groups and establish a standardized response to crises, but is more hopeful that it will add supports and infrastructure that will directly aid the vulnerable and the community as a whole.
Since he began policing in Trail in September 2018, Wicentowich has been working closely with people who have lived with mental health and addiction issues.
“Over time it has developed into very strong contacts between me and mental health and addictions and in our detachment,” Wicentowich told the Trail Times. “If we can just improve our ability to respond and keep people safe, because from my experience as a police officer, a lot of crime is tied to mental health and addiction, and when we help people resolve mental health and addiction, we reduce crime.”
In the past, RCMP had little choice but to incarcerate the person or bring them to the hospital for an assessment, but with the cooperation of Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital, Trail RCMP have access to three mental-health nurses on an emergency basis.
“They are able to come to our detachment or go with officers to conduct in-the-field mental health assessments,” said Wicentowich. “This is very dynamic and it also helps the officers in the moment better understand what is going on with the person.
“For us, odds are pretty good on identifying someone with mental health issues, these nurses have an incredible amount of knowledge that further assists us.”
RCMP receive a significant amount of training in dealing with people with mental illness and substance use disorders, but often that training is at odds with residents’ expectations.
Trail citizens have advocated for more police patrols, firmer action on drug dealers, and have supported housing initiatives and shelters, although preferably not in the downtown core.
Homelessness is a byproduct of mental illness and addiction, yet, rather than incarcerating people, RCMP and health-care workers try to help them find a path out of addiction and into treatment and permanent housing.
“We have an extensive amount of training as well as yearly re-certification on crisis intervention and deescalation,” said Wicentowich. “What’s interesting is that since this training has come about, our incidents have gone down, so it is working.”
Trail residents are understandably upset when they see homeless people on the streets, but Wicentowich urges compassion and understanding.
It hit home when he was walking downtown recently.
“I walk the bridges and four people living on the streets walked out from under the bridge. It was a long, cold, wet night and after walking around for 40 minutes, I was cold, but I had somewhere to go and they did not.
“It makes me feel for them, and so in long term, I’d like to see greater supports for the shelter, and greater support for people who are on the street, and eliminate visible homelessness in our downtown core through constructive means.”
People with mental health issues are able to live fulfilling, healthy lives, and there are a wide range of treatments. So there are many reasons to stay hopeful.
“We try to avoid them being involved in the criminal system, when their issues are mental health,” said Wicentowich.
“I think we’re getting there. All it is is kindness, and we can all participate by volunteering or donating, or taking the time to help someone in distress or give us a call if you see someone in distress, for their own safety.”
Trail RCMP may be ahead of the province when it comes to community coordination and support. They work closely with Career Development Services and other groups to help those in need. The groups meet once a month and develop strategies to guide people living with mental illness and substance use disorders.
“We’re never going to take someone off the street and dump them in another community. They need support and their support is here in Trail.”
The Times asked Interior Health about the working groups and how they can standardize responses to crises that are often unique to each community given the disparate populations and resources. However, the query proved premature.
“Unfortunately we do not have any further specifics available on the RCMP/Interior Health working group beyond what was released in the RCMP’s news release,” IH replied. “It is early days for that working group and much of the detail is still coming together.”
In times of crisis, RCMP are often the first on the scene. Their job is not to arrest and detain, but to assist individuals with mental illness and addictions in finding the help they need.
Wicentowich is hopeful the partnership with IH will actively and effectively address the systemic problems that have impacted every community in the province.
“I anticipate a greater partnership between the police and mental health and possibly some dedicated resources down the road,” added Wicentowich. “We saw the writing on the wall, from (Southeast District commander) Brad Haugli’s direction that we’re going to form these partnerships now. And if it develops into a full-time program where we work regularly with mental health, we more than welcome that.”