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Hundreds of mental health, addictions calls diverted from 911 in Red Deer, Alta.

Diana Hurley, social diversion worker, left, and Melody Holland, social diversion nurse, right. Both are staff at Red Deer’s Social Diversion Team, which receives 170 calls a month. (Supplied by Diana Hurley - image credit)

Diana Hurley, social diversion worker, left, and Melody Holland, social diversion nurse, right. Both are staff at Red Deer’s Social Diversion Team, which receives 170 calls a month. (Supplied by Diana Hurley – image credit)

A pilot program which diverts non-emergency, non-criminal events to nurses and addictions specialists instead of police or EMS will now be a regular service in Red Deer, Alta.

On average, Red Deer’s Social Diversion team receives 170 calls a month which would otherwise go to first responders.

The team of practical nurses and mental health and addiction specialists respond to calls to Alberta 211 in their van, equipped with naloxone, hand warmers, mittens, socks, snacks and water.

They help people who need social services, are sleeping in an unsafe space, not dressed for the weather, or who are having a mental health or addiction crisis.

“It’s about getting the right connection for the person in need. We’re able to do that, we’re able to provide that service gap and help the person get to the most appropriate resource,” said Diana Hurley, social diversion worker at Safe Harbor Society, and one of the team’s original members.

Not wearing a uniform, Hurley said, can also have a positive effect on the people they help, and help staff form a connection with people.

“We have a down to earth approach to people and a lot of the homeless population we’ve already built a rapport with. It’s more of a friendly approach, especially for mental health and homeless issues,” she said.

The program has been in operation for one year, and became a permanent fixture this month, said Jeremy Bouw, supervisor for community safety and resiliency support for the city of Red Deer.

He said the program is run by the city, Safe Harbor Society — which also runs a homeless shelter in Red Deer — and Distress Centre Calgary, which does call taking and triage.

“There are many calls that the RCMP would respond to in the course of a month, where they thought, ‘We’re not the best response for this,'” he said, and local RCMP will also reach out to the team instead of addressing some calls themselves.

In addition to finding the appropriate responders to a mental health or addiction crisis, he said, it also frees up time for police, firefighters and paramedics to respond to medical emergencies and crime.

“The event is generally a lot quicker when this team shows up with the ability to deescalate the situation,” Bouw said.

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