September 11, 2019 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

For nearly two years, Alex Paterson, BA ’13 Criminology and BSW ’16, has used her Social Work background in the emerging role of Mental Health Response Worker with the St. Thomas Police Service. Her position has proved so important that, in May 2019, it was announced funding had been secured to make the role permanent.

In 2017, Paterson was working as a crisis outreach worker for CMHA-Elgin, which collaborated with the St. Thomas Police Service in developing the role of a Mental Health Response Worker through a grant. Paterson began working in the position on October 10, 2017.  “I was requested and utilized in a crisis capacity on my first day of work and the requests for me to attend calls has not slowed down since,” says Paterson. Her contract was extended three times before the announcement in May.

Paterson says the need for mental health response workers in St. Thomas is quite high. Statistics prove that. In 2018, there were 1401 calls to the St. Thomas Police Services for people described as “experiencing mental distress.” She says the mental health response worker role has been beneficial in decreasing police time and resources spent.

“I feel as though I am doing a little bit of everything most days including crisis intervention and prevention, housing support, counselling, grief and bereavement, psychoeducation and mediation to name a few,” says Paterson.

Paterson works alongside uniformed officers on calls for services identified as involving a mental health component. She determines if the person involved is a risk to themselves or others, ensuring the person gets proper treatment and support from a hospital, CMHA, and/or their families.

Additionally, she works with community partners regarding whether police involvement is warranted in situations, interactions their clients have had with police and how to make those interactions more positive. She works with family members to try to get loved ones treatment and support before things escalate.

Paterson has been involved in conversations regarding mental health supports within police services. “I feel proud of the relationships and rapport I have built within the service and am sought out on a regular basis for professional and employee needs in relation to mental health and wellness,” says Paterson.

In her role, Paterson has the opportunity to engage in program development and evaluation, grant and business plan writing and advocacy.  She says her background in criminology and social work has assisted her greatly in this role.  She sees the link between criminal activity and social issues (poverty, addiction, unemployment and homelessness, for example) as more prevalent as ever.

“This role has opened my eyes to the responsibilities placed on police to essentially be citizen social workers who respond to crisis and attempt to navigate the social service system,” says Paterson. While she does her best to create approaches to divert contact (try and problem-solve outside of taking a person to hospital) between clients and the mental health system, for many, that first contact stems from police interaction. It is important for social workers to understand how involvement with the criminal justice system can shape a client’s perceptions and interactions with the world and their means of coping.

“Often these folks can be the hardest to reach in terms of the building trust and rapport required for a therapeutic relationship,” says Paterson.

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