Program that pairs nurses with RCMP on mental health calls making an impact in Fort McMurray

A program in Fort McMurray that pairs police officers with nurses to help people experiencing mental health crises has expanded after seeing early success.

The Police and Crisis Team (PACT) program, a partnership between RCMP and Alberta Health Services, was started in 2022.

It began with one mental health nurse and funding for one year. Now there are two nurses, and their positions have permanent funding.

Const. Jeremy Archambault has been with PACT for more than a year.

"We do only one thing. We respond to calls that are related to mental health," Archambault said in an interview.

"We really have time to respond to these specific calls and go and de-escalate situations and have these meaningful conversations with people."

When RCMP get a call about someone experiencing a mental health crisis, the nurse and an officer respond together.

Instead of a traditional marked RCMP cruiser, they drive an unmarked brown SUV. That helps lower peoples' guards as it's more discreet.

Jeremy Archambault has been with the PACT unit for over a year.
Archambault has been with the PACT unit for more than a year. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

RCMP officers working with the program have been getting additional training. Archambault has been trained in suicide prevention, and in recognizing and responding to different mental illnesses.

He's also learned about the available programs and partners in the community so he can refer people to the appropriate agencies.

Alex Sinclair, a registered nurse working with the PACT team, does on-scene assessments. She is trained in de-escalation techniques and provides people with supports such as referrals to services.

"I've noticed that lots of RCMP now are very patient," Sinclair said, adding they have a slower, more deliberate approach.

Archambault said that's true for him.

He feels more patient with people, and said he has learned that talking to a person in crisis can "de-escalate pretty much any situation and pretty much negate the use of force in a lot of situations."

PACT deals with some people more than once, and the officers and nurses are able to develop relationships with them, Archambault said. "They know they can trust us."

Alex Sinclair is a registered nurse and responds to mental health calls alongside the RCMP.
Sinclair said she's noticed that RCMP officers are now more patient when they are dealing with mental-health calls. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Rosilita Jn-Pierre, manager of addiction and mental health with AHS in Fort McMurray, says PACT has been diverting people away from the hospital and court systems.

After the program was introduced, AHS experienced an influx of clients. People who were not previously familiar with the resources available were seeking addiction and mental health services.

In 2022, Wood Buffalo RCMP received 970 Mental Health Act calls. In 2023 there were 1,222. And as of March 14 of this year, there had been 86 calls.

PACT was involved in 333 calls in 2022, 475 in 2023 and 74 in 2024 as of March 14.

Rosilita Jn-Pierre says the program is now fully funded.
Rosilita Jn-Pierre of Alberta Health Services says the program is now fully funded. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

PACT was highlighted as a need in the community given the "many traumas in Fort McMurray," including the 2016 wildfire and the downtown flood in 2020, said Jn-Pierre.

"We want to treat people where they are at in the community as opposed to being brought to hospital," she said.

According to AHS, there has been a drop in the number of patients discharged from the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre with Mental Health Act documents since PACT was introduced.

In 2021-22, 58 people were discharged with Mental Health Act paperwork. In 2022-23, that fell to 47.

Ping Zheng, executive director of Some Other Solutions, says sometimes people in crisis don't know where to get help, so they call 911. Having resources available through the PACT program can help people, she said.
Ping Zheng of the helping agency Some Other Solutions says having resources available through the PACT program is helpful for people who need them. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Ping Zhang, executive director at Some Other Solutions, a provider of mental health services in Fort McMurray including no-fee crisis counselling, said the PACT program has proven to be effective.

Many people experiencing a mental health crisis are looking for others to listen to them, and understand their needs, she said.

"They're actually looking for the solutions; they are not looking for the result," Zhang said.

She said Some Other Solutions still has many clients suffering with the impacts of the fire and flood.

"They may need help, but they don't know how to get a proper resource," she said, adding that many people who don't know about other available services call 911 for assistance.

Archambault, meanwhile, said he'd like to see the PACT program expand into rural communities.

"They could really benefit from a service like ours," he said.