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Dynamic team responds to mental health calls in Central Alberta

Cst. Jeffrey Pater, left, and RPN Stephanie Behm, the RPAC team for Central Alberta, pose for a photo at Timber Coffee Co. in Ponoka on Nov. 16. (Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)

Dealing with a mental health crisis can be frightening as well as unpredictable and dangerous for all involved, but now in Central Alberta, there is a team equipped to provide support while bringing about a safe resolution in a respectful, confidential manner.

The Alberta RCMP has been expanding its Regional Police and Crisis Teams (RPACT) for the past two years. An RPAC team consists of an RCMP officer and an Alberta Health Services (AHS) mental health therapist, who together respond to mental health calls in their jurisdiction.

For Central Alberta, that mobile team is Cst. Jeffrey Pater and Registered Psychiatric Nurse (RPN) Stephanie Behm.

When Pater started his career with the RCMP in 2015, he didn’t like attending mental health calls.

“I felt it was really inappropriate for police to be attending. I felt it was kind of dangerous and I wished there was, sort of, a better way.”

When he started, Grand Prairie had implemented a police crisis team for that area. He later saw the impact the team in Edmonton had on areas they covered, including Beaumont.

“I got to kind of see what that was about. I got to see how they were doing it, and I thought that was a much better approach to things.”

He saw how well bringing in a mental health professional to these situations worked.

“I kind of just grew a passion for it.”

That stayed in the back of his mind, and when the opportunity arose with the expansion, he put his name forward.

Together, Pater and Behm cover six RCMP jurisdictions: Wetaskiwin, Camrose County, Maskwacis, Bashaw, Ponoka and Stettler. Soon, however, their area will adjust, adding Beaumont and Leduc County and removing Stettler, which will be covered by another team.

Pater and Behm have been a team since May, 2022, and are the first pair to cover this area.

The response has been very positive, they said, adding people seem very grateful when they arrive to offer their support — both the members of the public they interact with, and responding police officers.

“Police are not very familiar with mental health diagnoses (and) the mental health system, and so there can be that miscommunication and frustration and a part of our unit is also bridging that gap, helping other officers understand the limitations, the expectations; how to navigate that system,” said Pater.

He added RPAC units really help two “massive organizations” like AHS and the RCMP “speak the same language.”

Based in Wetaskiwin, the team’s hours are set strategically based on statistics of call volumes: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays.

The team responds to both live calls and referrals.

Live calls can run the gamut from those dealing with suicidal ideation to reacting to unseen stimuli and other active crises.

When there’s a call when they’re not working, the responding officer may make a referral if there’s mental health concerns, and the RPACT can schedule an appointment to follow up with the individual.

They check in and see if resources are being utilized or if other support is needed.

When they’re already on another call, provided everyone if safe, the team can sometimes consult over the phone with attending officers to provide support.

They also frequently collaborate with Maskwacis Mobile Mental Health.

RPAC teams don’t conduct any other policing; their only goal is to build rapport and provide support to people suffering from mental health concerns.

“People don’t have to fear disclosing information to us.” said Behm.

They are not there to investigate crimes, and anything said to an RPAC team can’t be disclosed at court.

Although, Pater added, if an offence is committed while they are responding to a live call, individuals aren’t immune to charges.

As a health care professional, Behm has access to the province-wide Connect Care system, including patient records.

The information can help the team respond appropriately to a situation. All the information is kept confidential.

RPAC RCMP officers are under strict non-disclosure rules, and information on mental health in not included in police records. Behm’s reports are also not able to be disclosed in court.

Behm has been a psychiatric nurse since 2006. She worked at various positions in hospitals and within the community, including in crisis response in the emergency department at the Wetaskiwin hospital.

“That led me to apply for this position. This is a lot of crisis response and I like being able to help people in crisis, trying to help people resolve their issues or get supports that are needed in their times of crisis.”

While on duty, Pater wears standard police officer attire. Behm dresses in plainclothes, but wears body armour for safety, with her name and designation clearly displayed. Badges further identify her as a nurse and/or member of an RPAC team.

While Pater received some additional mental health training before joining the unit, his role is primarily the safety of his partner, and apprehension if absolutely necessary, as an RPN can’t make an apprehension.

Apprehension of a person under the Mental Health Act is a last resort and certain criteria has to be met. Other options, such as family support, or counselling referrals, are considered first.

“Our goal in our program is not to put people back in hospital,” said Behm. “It’s to link them with community resources (such as) therapy appointments, other agencies, FCSS (etcetera).”

RPACT does have some limitations for what they can, and what is appropriate for, them to respond to.

For example, a person’s mental status can’t be assessed while they’re under the influence.

However, the team says don’t hesitate to give them a call and they will make a determination.

Though the pair covers a large area, they say they’re handling their call volume adequately.

“Every area could benefit from more teams, but right now the focus is getting a team in every area,” said Pater.

“I don’t think it can be overstated how important (this work) is,” he said. “It’s been incredibly successful. I’ve left work on numerous occasions truly feeling like I’ve saved a life.”

The plan is to eventually have an RPAC team in all jurisdictions across the province.

The Alberta RCMP responded to over 20,000 files related to the Mental Health Act in 2020, according to a release.

Police crisis response teams have existed in difference forms for some time in larger centres, and in 2011, RPACT was created to provide a more regional, rural approach. The Alberta RCMP announced a three-year, phased expansion of the program in 2021.

Emily Jaycox

About the Author: Emily Jaycox

I'm a reporter for Ponoka News and have lived in Ponoka since 2015.
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