WINDSOR, ONT. -- There’s no question COVID-19 has put a strain on our lives and in many cases, our mental health.

Essex-Windsor EMS is set to launch a pilot program designed to get people to the best care possible.

“We saw our mental health volume going up and up and up every year,” says Essex-Windsor Emergency Medical Services Chief Bruce Krauter, who adds mental health-related issues make up 15 per cent of the service’s call volume.

Essex County Council approved the pilot program during budget deliberations Wednesday that will see the new mental health and addictions response team (MHART) operational by April, 2021.

Krauter says the MHART team would consist of an EMS worker paired with someone from a partner agency who specializes in mental health and addictions to respond to those specific calls.

He says it would be similar to the Windsor Police COAST team, but instead of operating with a focus on criminal justice, it would be about diverting certain calls potentially away from the hospital to the appropriate setting, such as the Mental Health Wellness Centre on Ouellette Avenue or Canadian Mental Health Association.

“We’re in conversation right now and over the next three months we should be able to get it somewhat cemented where we get one of their staff, one of our paramedics and in real time we could respond to the mental health calls,” says Krauter.

The pilot will see two different full-time paramedics staffed on 12 hour shifts, seven days a week to respond to mental health calls.

“We hear the call go out, an ambulance may be dispatched at the time. MHEART is dispatched and once the MHEART unit gets on scene and understands what’s going on, they can release the ambulance,” says Krauter. “(Then we can) deal with the person in crisis, get them to a hospital, get them to an alternate destination, get them connected to the right service and see it as a bonus for the entire healthcare system.”

While the timing of launching this program is coincidental and not directly related to the pandemic, the prevalence of mental health-related issues is generally on the rise in Windsor-Essex.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 38 per cent people say their mental health has declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Forty-six per cent report feeling anxious or worried and another 14 per cent of respondents from their Sept. 2020 survey admit they’re having trouble coping.

Hotel Dieu Grace Healthcare is reporting 8,880 calls to the crisis hotline from April to September — with 2,197 people seeking information about services.

Krauter says the benefits of the pilot program are two-fold.

“It not only helps and assists the people that are receiving the care for mental health and addictions, but if we free up ambulances it helps the entire community that we have more ambulances available instead of at a hospital waiting to get offloaded,” he says.

The MHART pilot is set to run from April through 2021. Krauter says he will be reporting back to county council mid-year to discuss the success of the program.