On the front lines of mental health

New screening tool better connects Ontario Provincial Police and clinicians to support those in crisis

By Christine Bezruki

Applied Health Sciences

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Starting this spring, frontline officers with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) will use a screening tool developed at Waterloo to assess mental health issues, allowing for improved transitions from police custody to hospital care.

The Brief Mental Health Screener (BMHS) is a standardized, science-based assessment that will help officers better respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis and communicate more effectively with mental health professionals at the hospital. The tool was jointly developed by the OPP and Waterloo researchers working with interRAI, an international organization committed to improving care for vulnerable populations with complex needs.

Police officer at workA new screening tool will better equip frontline officers with the Ontario Provincial Police to assess mental health issues. Credit: Ontario Provincial Police.

 

Standardizing language around mental health

The BMHS is based on the interRAI Mental Health Assessment System — a system already used for every patient admitted to an Ontario hospital for psychiatric care. With the new tool, officers can accurately measure and articulate symptoms in a way that health care practitioners will understand.

 “The BMHS standardizes police observations and allows them to communicate in the language of the health care system. This will streamline the transition for persons with mental illness from police custody to mental health care provided by hospitals and community-based agencies,” said Ron Hoffman, a Mental Health Training Coordinator for the Ontario Police College who co-led development and testing of the tool as part of his doctoral dissertation at Waterloo.

On top of easing transitions between the justice and health care systems, the BMHS also means enhanced training for officers on the frontline.

Ron Hoffman

Ron Hoffman, Mental Health Training Coordinator, Ontario Police College

 

More training for officers

“Right now the Mental Health Act doesn’t provide officers with much guidance about indicators of serious mental illness. The tool helps them better assess the situation and determine next steps,” Hoffman said.

Over the coming months the tool will be adopted by approximately 6,000 OPP officers as detachment commanders develop partnerships with Ontario hospitals to implement it in day-to-day practice. As part of the roll-out, frontline officers will receive training on the terminology used by health care professionals and how to correctly complete the assessment.

“At the end of the day, the BMHS will help to improve the collaboration between police officers and mental health professionals in a way that will directly benefit persons with mental health needs,” said John Hirdes, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences and Chair of the interRAI Network of Excellence in Mental Health.

The tool has already garnered support from other police services who are in the early stages of implementation.

“Leadership on both the criminal justice and health care sides have endorsed it. Obviously anything we can do to interact more efficiently with emergency staff and enhance the wellbeing of those with mental health issues is a priority,” said Hoffman.