AMHERST, N.S. – Amherst Police Chief Ian Naylor believed so strongly in providing mental first aid training to his officers, he even took it himself.
Naylor and the department’s 20-plus officers completed the two-day course this week, in an effort to be better equipped to deal with people who are having a mental health crisis.
“I think hopefully this gives us some more confidence in what we’re doing in being able to assess what we’re dealing with, and how best to handle it,” he said. “Every time we go out to serve the public, we want to get it right, and every police officer will tell you their reason for being a police officer is to help people.”
The idea came from the local Police and Health Liaison Committee, a group that includes representatives from the police department, Cumberland Mental Health and others.
“There was recognition we needed to increase our mental health literacy, essentially among our policing units so they would feel better equipped to handle situations and have some better awareness of what is happening for those particular clients they are engaged with,” said Pam Chenhall, a psychologist with Cumberland Mental Health.
When looking at what kind of training and programming was available, it was suggested that mental health first aid was an excellent first step.
Originally developed in Australia, the course has been further developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and offered nationally. It has trained thousands of people in all industries and occupations, according to instructor James Shedden.
“There are two objectives, one to learn more about common mental health conditions like anxiety, psychosis, substance use… but also what to do when you encounter someone who is having a mental health crisis, whatever that is,” he said. “It’s a great overall program for everyone, but for police specifically because they were able to bring in a lot of really good conversations on some specific things they encounter on a daily basis.”
It was Shedden’s first time instructing police officers in the course, and he believes Amherst may be the province’s first mainland force to take the step. He said the experience was a positive one.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but the officers were great,” he said. “They were engaged. Giving up two days of your time is really tough, but I think they recognized this was an opportunity to have a base of skill and build upon that.”
The whole point of the training was to be proactive and try to prevent stories with tragic endings from happening here, according to Naylor.
“I think what we’re taking from this is certainly more empathy, more understanding, and it will probably translate into more patience at times as well,” he said.