UPDATE: New mental health program will enhance service

RNC chief calls it ‘cutting edge’

Bonnie Belec bbelec@thetelegram.com
Published on December 12, 2013
RNC Chief of Police Robert Johnston speaks today in St. John's about a new mental health initiative aimed at mental health first aid training to emergency responders in the province. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

A new mental health training initiative announced Thursday by the RNC is not being done to fill a void in the force, says the Justice minister.

“Training is something we do anyway. This is what you might call, an enhanced initiative with Bell Aliant Pioneers, who have come forward and said, ‘we want to provide some support to enhance what you are doing,’” Darin King told The Telegram following the announcement at RNC headquarters.

“So it’s not a case of filling a void. These kinds of things are ongoing anyway. This presentation today is going to enhance and do more of the same,” he said.

The Pioneers donated $250,000 to the initiative which will teach the Mental Health First Aid program — developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada — to emergency responders across the province.

RNC Chief Bob Johnston said the goal is to train 2,700 first responders working in the RNC, RCMP and fire and emergency services during the next two to three years.

It involves not only police officers but ambulance attendants, fire departments and volunteer firefighters — people who may have to respond to calls involving young people with mental health issues.

“I know from my own experience, nearly 35 years in policing, the first responder who comes in contact with someone in crisis is going  to have a significant impact on how that person deals with the system. If it’s a positive experience, they may be encouraged to seek out more help, but if it’s negative it is possible they may withdraw, get worse or become engaged in criminal activity or substance abuse,” he said.

By using the Mental Health First Aid model, Johnston said, everyone will respond the same way.

“It’s important we understand the issues and concerns and also have some sense of how we should all respond to it, so we are consistent in our approach, and this initiative will do that,” said the chief.

While the Mental Health First Aid program is specifically designed for youth, ages 12-24, the chief said the principles, when dealing with people with mental health issues are the same. However, this program has some specific aims for adults who interact with youth.

“It’s the same skills set, but when dealing with youth there are other issues at play and while the principles can be applied to adults, this is sort of targeting some of the specific challenges around youth which have been identified as the most vulnerable group,” said the chief

Dale Grimes, Bell Aliant’s director, regional services for Newfoundland and Labrador, said the donation is part of its commitment to improve access to mental health care and help reduce stigma associated with mental illness.

King said while the government provides funding to the RNC for training annually, the partnership with Bell Pioneers is along the same lines as the Ronald McDonald House providing support to cancer patients.

“This is an add on,” said the Justice minister. “Bell Aliant supports many causes and decided this year this was one cause they wanted to support, Canadian Mental Health, and it’s a welcome addition,” he said.

Johnston said the partnership is the first of its kind in the country and he believes it will exceed expectations.

“We receive mental health training as a force, but we’re taking it to a new level. I can’t emphasize how critical it is that we are consistent in our approach to people that are in crisis. Nothing could be more confusing for someone suffering from a mental illness to be approached by one group differently than another group providing the same care,” he said.

“This is cutting edge. We will train the trainers, then reach out across the province. I think it will grow and be bigger than all of us imagined,” said the chief.

NOTE: Last update 6 p.m. NLT