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Local police and hospital team up for response unit dedicated to mental health

'We dig deeper,' says Const. Karen Viragh, one of the OPP officers in the Mental Health Response Unit
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The Collingwood and Huronia West OPP Mental Health Response Unit members from left: Const. Dave Holmes, Brittany Mauro, April Vass, Const. Karen Viragh, and Amanda Kain-Johnson. The team, made up of employees of the OPP and Collingwood General and Marine Hospital was formed three years ago to respond to active and follow up calls involving mental health matters. Contributed photo

A partnership between the local hospital and OPP detachments has brought more help to individuals suffering from poor mental health.

The Mental Health Response Unit (MHRU) - made up of a crisis worker (nurse or social worker) employed by the hospital and an OPP constable - is standing by to assist police with calls.

Const. Karen Viragh, a Collingwood OPP officer, has been part of the unit since its inception three years ago. She’s been a police officer for more than 30 years.

“Mental health has been at the forefront in policing over the last 10 years,” she said. “Police are responding to way more concerns than they have before.”

According to Viragh, responding to mental health concerns requires more than the OPP, it’s a joint effort. The MHRU pairs the expertise of an OPP constable with the experience and knowledge of a nurse and a social worker, and access to a variety of mental health programs and supports available in the area.

“It’s nice to have the collaboration and knowledge of both,” said Viragh.

The MHRU will be called in by a police officer attending a call where the officer has assessed a mental health component and they will also perform follow-up calls or visits based on requests by family, friends, police, and health care professionals. Calling in the MHRU provides the same assessment as bringing the individual to the hospital would.

On a police call, the MHRU crisis worker will perform a risk assessment and connect the individual being assessed with appropriate services. In a case where the person presents a danger, the OPP officer in the MHRU can apprehend the individual if necessary.

In other cases, the team will follow up with someone who had an interaction with police, or someone who has missed an appointment.

This check-up will be client-focused with the officer and crisis worker visiting or calling a client, and asking what they need. Viragh said they’ve done things like walk dogs, or get someone in to clean their home, in addition to connecting them with various services.

“We dig deeper,” said Viragh. “We really think outside the box.”

In the last year, the MHRU, which responds to calls for The Blue Mountains, Collingwood, and Huronia West (Wasaga Beach) OPP, responded to approximately 200 first-response calls and completed an added 365 follow-up visits and phone calls.

“It has reduced hospital visits and reduced police time,” said Viragh. “And it reduces the stigma, because we’re treating it for what it is.”

The unit collaborates with the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, Catulpa, the Canadian Mental Health Association, multiple school boards, e3 Community Services, family health teams, New Path, Empower Simcoe, Waypoint and area hospital outpatient mental health services among others.

“The connections with the agencies is incredible,” said Mauro.

Viragh said her work with the MHRU is “very different” from her past police work, and added it is “very rewarding.”

She said the feedback from people they work with is generally positive and they are glad to know there are police and hospital staff out there who care about their wellbeing so much they are willing to come check on them.

“You really immerse yourself in the community,” she said. “People are really connected with hospitals and police in small towns on many different levels.”

The Collingwood/BlueMountains/Huronia West MHRU is modelled after a nearly identical unit established in Essex county, but it’s unique to the region.

In fact, the MHRU won two awards of excellence in 2018, one from the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital’s board of trustees, and another – the Transformation award – from the province’s ministry of health.

The MHRU is available by phone at 705-445-2550, ext 8144. That line goes directly to voicemail, which is checked Monday-Thursday. If you leave a message with your name and phone number, someone from the MHRU will call you back.


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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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