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Mental Health

Police learn how to deal with the mentally ill in crisis Add to ...

Michael’s manic episodes started after an injury stopped him from doing what he loved most – playing hockey. Feeling like he had lost his identity, he took a job as a bouncer at a nightclub, and started abusing drugs and alcohol. His volatile lifestyle came to a head one night when a scuffle with police landed him in Mental Health Court.

Police say he assaulted an officer. Michael, who asked to be identified by his first name, says he was the one hurt in the encounter. But the result, court-ordered participation in recovery groups and therapy combined with medication, gave him a new lease on life. Ontario’s Mental Health Court is a court system designed for people with mental illness. “The opportunity that was awarded to me through Mental Health Court was great. I wish it didn’t have to be my head bouncing off cement that got me there,” Michael said. “I wish it was something a little softer.”

A shortage of mental-health resources in Canada has put police and the mentally ill on a collision course, with officers increasingly becoming the first point of contact for people in crisis. While few police forces keep detailed statistics of the types of calls coming in, officers across the country say a rising number of them involve the mentally ill. In Vancouver, it’s a third of all calls. Research conducted in the small Ontario city of Belleville, population 50,000, shows that each front-line officer attends about 40 such calls a year.

While Michael’s story ended happily – he’s now working and gives lectures to Ontario’s York Regional Police force on what it’s like to live in the throes of mental illness – other cases have ended in tragedy. In Ontario last year, a bipolar woman was shot dead after rushing at police with a knife. Another man with obvious mental-health issues wound up dead after an altercation with police on the street (the incident is currently under investigation by the province’s Special Investigations Unit). On Friday, Montreal police shot and killed a homeless man some shelter workers said may have suffered from mental illness. The case is being investigated by Quebec provincial police.

In response, some forces are devoting extra time and resources to training their officers, and experimenting with more effective ways to approach mentally ill citizens in crisis. But Shelagh Morris, chair of a Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police committee that recently examined this issue, said standards vary across the country. Some police forces, such as those in Halifax and Hamilton, are dedicating an extra 40 hours of training to the topic, and have instituted first-response teams that involve mental-health professionals. Others, such as in Lethbridge, Alta, have less than two hours of training dedicated to mental health.

Ms. Morris said those first few moments of interaction between police and someone in crisis are crucial: “If you don’t respond properly, the results can be catastrophic.”

The altercations

In August, 46-year-old Charlie McGillivary, a large man who had been struck mute and brain damaged as a child by a car accident, was walking with his mother in Toronto to get a slice of pizza. Police, who were in the area for something unrelated, crossed their path, and an altercation broke out. What happened then is still unclear – it’s under investigation by the SIU – but Mr. McGillivary died shortly afterward.

A few months later, Toronto’s Sylvia Klibingaitis told an emergency dispatcher that she was bipolar and wanted to kill her mother. When police arrived at the scene she ran at them with a large knife and was shot dead.

These cases are at one end of an extreme, but illustrate the high stakes often involved when mental illness plays a role in an altercation with police.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, says officers have to deal with the danger first when they respond to a call, to protect themselves and the public.

“The mental-health issues sort of take a back seat when our officers are exposed to people with weapons and violence,” Mr. McCormack said. “The priority at those calls is dealing with that immediate threat.”

Lawyer Julian Falconer, who has represented the families of mental-health patients and those who have taken legal action against the police, says officers must differentiate between a situation that requires force and one that can be de-escalated verbally. “It’s not true that we should react exactly the same, simply because the threat is there.”

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