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Growing number of mental health calls to first responders leaves ‘feeling of helplessness’

Wellness check and mental health calls in the city are a daily and growing occurrence according to Tom Bilous, a firefighter and president of United Firefighters of Winnipeg.

He said the increasing demand is putting strain on first responders.

“These are not five-minute calls,” he said. “You are not taping a sprained ankle. You’re sitting and listening and dealing with the person until proper resources can come or they get taken to hospital. So, it ties up resources, it spreads our fire resources thin and makes us unavailable for other emergencies.”

Earlier this week, Winnipeg Police Service chief, Danny Smyth, said his officers are responding to these types of situations more than any other type of call.

“We’re attending calls like this almost 21,000 times a year now. It’s surpassed domestics. Domestics used to always be the highest type of call we would take. It’s still high around 17,000,” he said.

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Both Smyth and Bilous believe there aren’t enough mental health resources, which is why they said first responders are receiving these types of calls so often.

Bilous says it’s a complex problem.

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“It does start with numbers. You need those mental health experts, those resources to be on scene,” he said. “Our members do the best they can. Those soft skills are developed, I would suggest, over time and experience. They do the best they can, but we know our limitations,” he said.

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Overall, he said these kinds of calls are wearing firefighters thin. “They are exhausted. They are fatigued. There is a feeling of helplessness. You can go and listen, but while you’re waiting for resources, we can’t do much more.”

Bilous said, “I know everyone’s crying for more resources. the hospitals, the paramedics, fire, police.” However, he said hope is found in the Alternative Response to Citizens in Crisis (ARCC) pilot project.

“I don’t have the answers, but certainly across the board, there needs to be more mental health experts to assist these people in need,” he said.

Smyth said the program works so that a mental health worker accompanies police to certain calls, but only in non-volatile situations so their lives aren’t threatened.

Another service with the potential to ease emergency resources is 9-8-8, a Canada-wide suicide crisis helpline launched in November.

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Suzanne Robertson, director of Mental Health and Crisis Services at Klinic Community Health said, “When there’s a lack of awareness of where the resources are, or how to access those, or even how they work or operate, that tends to lean on emergency responders to be asked to respond and attend.”

She echoed Bilous’ concern that there are not enough resources to meet the community’s needs.

“There is need for more resources and community-based resources doing those emergency responses and interventions for people when they are experiencing a mental health crisis.”

An additional reality, Robertson said, is the stigma shrouding mental health.

“That stigma and stereotype and shame that may be associated with it actually inhibits people from accessing services, or feeling safe and comfortable to do so,” she said.

— with files from Global’s Teagan Rasche

Click to play video: 'Experts say more resources and training needed to de-escalate mental health crises'

Experts say more resources and training needed to de-escalate mental health crises

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