Alberta police pilot app to help assess, de-escalate and track mental health crisis calls

The Alberta government is investing $789,000 to pilot an app designed to help front-line police officers across the province better respond to mental health crisis calls following a proven track record in other parts of the country.

The HealthIM app is a digital, subscription-based risk-assessment tool developed several years ago by University of Waterloo researchers that’s meant to help police screen, de-escalate and track mental health-related calls. 

App in use elsewhere in Canada

It has already been adopted by police departments in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

And, according to the provincial government, it has been shown to contribute to significant reductions in involuntary arrests and police resources, as well as increases in overall savings — all while ensuring people in crisis get the appropriate help they need.

Jason Luan, associate minister of Mental Health and Addiction, says police officers are not mental health experts and the province hopes the pilot project provides useful information. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio-Canada)

Manitoba recorded a 70 per cent reduction in involuntary arrests between February 2019 and February 2020.

“Given COVID, given the severe mental health impact on all of us, police services throughout the province are asking for help. They say police officers are not mental health experts … and that’s one of the reasons we are eager to get this pilot going and learn from it,” said Jason Luan, associate minister for Mental Health and Addiction.

Edmonton police to be first in province

Edmonton police will be the first agency to fully implement the app in Alberta. Other police agencies, such as those in Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, have also signed on but will initiate their programs later this year.

“We feel pretty fortunate to be looking in this direction to help our front-line service providers,” said Chief Dale McFee of the Edmonton Police Serve.

McFee is also the president of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police.

How it works

According to the company, the HealthIM system guides an officer through a rapid risk assessment designed for emergency first responders. It takes approximately three to four minutes to complete.

Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee says the app will provide the officer with an assessment that is based on science from a health perspective. (Richard Marion/CBC)

The company says that based on information from an individual, caregivers, bystanders and direct observations, an officer is provided more objective information to help determine the most appropriate response.

McFee says that’s the difference: the assessment is based on science from a health perspective, not just an officer’s observations.

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