Winnipeg police test training app to de-escalate mental health crises

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Winnipeg police using new tool to deal with encounters related to mental health
WATCH: A new audio training program helps Winnipeg police officers better relate to someone in the midst of a mental health crisis. Global's Brittany Greenslade reports – Jul 24, 2018

Winnipeg police are using a new piece of equipment to help arm its officers with more knowledge and understanding to better resolve escalating mental health situations.

SimVoice is a program to help police experience what it’s like to hear voices in your head, similar to what someone who suffers from schizophrenia might deal with.

“The SimVoice recreates and allows our officers to not only to experience what it’s like to talk to someone experiencing schizophrenia but also to recreate that for that officer and allow them to understand even more now when it’s a real life situation,” Ptrl. Sgt. Colin Anderson said.

Winnipeg-based SetCan, which makes reality-based training products for police and military forces, created SimVoice and is offering to police forces across the country.

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It’s a fairly simple program that is used in a role-playing situation.

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One officer wears wireless headphones connected to the app which is controlled by the trainer. The app is pre-programmed with different scenarios in which voices speak to the person wearing the headphones.

A fellow officer will then have to try to deescalate the situation, while the other person reacts to the voices they are hearing.

“The individual acting as the officer comes in to talk to them and tries to get voluntary compliance,” Const. Dan Atwell said.

As that is happening, the trainer can adjust the settings on the app and the headphones.

“I turn it to the next setting which is an aggressive, negative response that the officer may have to deal with,” Atwell said.

The trainer can make things easier or harder, depending on how the officers are doing. The voices may become increasingly paranoid of police or they may tell the person to comply.

“It trains the officer to help people who are less compliant initially and how to overcome some of the communication barriers and obstacles they may encounter,” Atwell said.

“If they make a misstep and perhaps say something that may be misconstrued or is inflammatory I can amp it back up again. It has that sliding scale of negativity and aggression that the person wearing basically repeats.”

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READ MORE: Families face obstacles finding help for those with schizophrenia

Sean Miller from the Canadian Mental Health Association helped police set up the training program. Miller previously had similar auditory hallucinations when he lived with schizophrenia.

“Being that I had lived-experience, they asked me to provide feedback on how accurate — how lifelike, if you will — this software was,” Miller said. “They wanted to have an informed response, appropriate response and a more compassionate response to people who are dealing with mental illness.”

Miller said the voices he heard in his head were like a bully continually following him around.

“It was impossible to put physical distance between me and the mental aggressor. I was followed into the shower, to work, the dinner table, family gatherings… pretty much all of my life without reprieve,” Miller said.

“I was woken up in the middle of the night with anxiety-inducing commands and corresponding threats, death threats, should instructions not be followed. This experience isn’t synonymous amongst those living with schizophrenia; however, SimVoice is a good representation of what auditory hallucinations can be like.”

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Police are hoping the added training will stick with officers when they are out in the field and encounter a person who is struggling.

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“To re-create that for that officer and allow them to understand even more now when it’s a real like situation,” Ptrl. Sgt. Anderson said. “Man, I remember putting those headphones on and all those voices and how hard it was to hear that officer… so maybe I need to put myself in a better position or talk in a more effective type of communication for them to hear me and understand.”

The simulation helps move the situation from theory to practical experience, but in a controlled setting, and helps police officers quickly learn what would have otherwise taken months or years to learn through work experience.

LISTEN: Trainers hear a range of audio scenarios

from compliant 

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to non-compliant

“(It) brings a completely new level of understanding as to what they are going through and with that, a great deal of empathy,” Const. Atwell said. “So that next time they are dealing with someone who is suffering from this they will, maybe, have a lot more patience and try a lot harder to get that voluntary compliance before physical action needs to occur.”

The Winnipeg Police Service was the first force in Canada to start using this new software and training. It rolled out in Winnipeg at the beginning of the year and is currently being used as part of every recruit and cadet class training.

The hope is to, eventually, have every officer on the force trained.

Are you, or someone you know, in need of mental health support?

Click here to find mental health resources for Winnipeg, or contact the Canadian Mental Health Association, or the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba.

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