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The Mental Health Crisis Response Education and Applied Training (MHCR) program is a complete training package that comprises online modules, scenario-based training, and an evaluation framework designed to train police officers to engage in de-escalation tactics and communication techniques in response to people in mental health crisis. The MHCR offers a curriculum anchored in active, competency-based learning that allows officers to repeatedly practice safe crisis intervention strategies.

The program is based on a Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded study completed by the research team and uses protocols co-designed by a team of diverse community stakeholders including people with lived experience, clinicians, Indigenous cultural safety experts, and police trainers (Lavoie et al., 2022).

Training and Assessment

The MHCR uses a blended learning, problem-based approach. Training commences with a series of online primer modules that provide learners with an interactive foundation in de-escalation, mental illness and crisis, cultural safety, bias awareness, and relational policing approaches.

At the centre of this training is a series of 90-minute "Forum Scenarios," which offers applied learning sessions where officers have the opportunity to problem-solve, discuss in groups, and practice skills in response to high fidelity crisis situations. This applied learning model allows officer learners to practice skills guided by integrated, in-scenario, and video feedback by subject matter experts ranging from people with lived experience of mental illness and clinicians to police trainers.

Officer learners are then given an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in a scenario-based assessment built into the program ("Circuit Scenarios"). Officers participate in a series of 10-minute simulations where they are asked to respond to a diverse array of mental health crisis situations. Facilitators use a validated observer-rater evaluation framework (DEPICTTM) to assess officer skills targeted in the training program.

Virtual Reality based Mental Health Crisis Response Education and Applied Training (VR-MHCR)

The VR-MHCR migrates the comprehensive training package of the MHCR into a virtual reality format. Leveraging VR as a training platform enhances portability, scalability, and consistency of the scenario-based curriculum across Ontario at a significant cost-savings relative to live action scenario training. Officer learners use VR headsets and controllers to enter a fully immersive VR environment that replicates the settings and characters from the original MHCR scenarios.

VR offers life-like situations and interactive environments that are scaled 1:1 from a first-person perspective. While many VR-training programs reduce crisis encounters to a series of multiple-choice options, the VR-MHCR’s 360o "open world" construction captures the complexity of mental health crisis situations, allowing officers to test their decision-making, risk assessment and de-escalation capabilities while taking advantage of the fully realized environment to engage tactical considerations such as positioning, containment and control, and time and distance.

The VR-MHCR initiative is poised to revolutionize police training in Ontario by placing an immersive experiential training package that fully integrates the De-escalating Persons in Crisis Competencies Tool (DePICTTM) evaluation framework at the fingertips of police instructors.

Distinguishing Features of the MHCR

The MHCR is unique to other models of crisis de-escalation education and training through several prominent characteristics. The MHCR features:

  • An evidence-based curriculum that has been created through eight years of scientific research and development as well as testing and validation. Results to date have clearly demonstrated improved outcomes in police officers’ de-escalation skills, confidence, empathy, and reduced bias toward people with mental health and substance use problems upon program completion.
  • A comprehensive training and education package that is easily accessible through a hybrid model consisting of an foundational online curriculum, and active scenario-based learning and assessment. This format brings together optimal forms of scenario-based training and adult learning through applied, observational, and group problem-solving methods.
  • A highly responsive design model based on iterative user testing across Ontario police services. All training scenarios are fully immersive, based on actual encounters between police and individuals in mental health crisis, and designed to prepare officers for what they will actually encounter in the field.

The MHCR is guided by the DEPICTTM model, a built-in and validated assessment tool that measures de-escalation competencies specific to policing and highlights targeted skills integral to working with people in crisis. The DEPICTTM enables trainers to gain familiarity in assessing and evaluating trainees.

Community-Based Collaboration

The MHCR evolved through a community co-design framework. This approach is characterized by a working relationship between professionals and citizens, where each party plays a pivotal role in informing best practices to improve the quality of life for people and communities (Slay & Stephens, 2013). Collaboration cannot be understated with respect to mental health and substance use crises, given that these particular concerns exceed the capacity of any singular discipline and are community-based issues.

As such, the MHCR was created by a trans-disciplinary team of over 40 individuals including:

  • persons with lived experience
  • mental health clinicians, nurses, mobile crisis response teams, and forensic psychologists
  • researchers, academics, and simulation experts
  • Indigenous cultural safety and anti-discrimination experts
  • defensive tactics and use of force trainers, and members of the Ministry of the Solicitor General’s ETT Community of Practice

Consequently, the program stresses the importance of relational policing, which emphasizes a genuine and personalized response where police officers invest time into cultivating a connection and building trust with the person in crisis while managing safety risks (Lavoie et al., 2022).

Domestic Approach

The MHCR is a homegrown curriculum that is culturally, geographically, and jurisdictionally relevant to the needs of Ontario citizens and police officers. The program demonstrates a commitment to addressing the recommendations made in the Ontario Ombudsman’s (2016) report “A Matter of Life and Death: Investigation into the Direction Provided by the Ministry of the Solicitor General to Ontario’s Police Services for De-escalation of Conflict Situations” and responsiveness to current issues.

This domestic approach to crisis de-escalation is particularly important given the unique landscape of policing and mental health in Canada. As a curriculum designed and driven by Ontario police trainers, community experts, clinicians, people with lived experience of mental illness, researchers, and anti-racism educators, the VR-MHCR reflects local training priorities, protocols, vocabulary, and province-wide stakeholder investment.

Staying Up to Date

Wilfrid Laurier University and Toronto Metropolitan University in partnership with the Laurier’s Centre for Public Safety and Well-Being are completing the development of a train the trainer (T3) program and sustainability planning for the roll out the MHCR and VR-MHCR programs to align with forthcoming legislation.

Current expected launch date of the MHCR-T3 program is Fall 2024.

If you would like to be informed as updates, webinars, and information kits become available, please fill out the MHCR form.

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