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gary mason

A mother and her five-year-old daughter were walking along a downtown Vancouver street last May when they were approached by a somewhat distressed-looking man who started screaming and swearing at them.

He grabbed the young child and dragged her along the sidewalk before beginning to swing her violently around by her hair. Hysterical, the mother intervened, only to be pushed to the ground, along with her daughter, whereupon the man began kicking them both.

Police eventually arrived and arrested him. As it turned out, he'd been apprehended several times before, at least seven times under Section 28 of the Mental Health Act.

Section 28 gives police the authority to arrest individuals if it's believed they have mental illness and could be a danger to themselves or others.

The number of apprehensions being made on the streets of Vancouver under this provision of the act has increased 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012.

So far in 2013, Section 28 arrests are up 23 per cent over this time last year. Meantime, St. Paul's Hospital, located in the heart of downtown, has seen a 43-per-cent increase in individuals with severe mental illnesses and addictions.

Since January, 2012, Vancouver police have identified 96 serious incidents, ranging from suicides to random violent attacks upon innocent members of the public. And the frequency of these cases is increasing, according to police.

Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu and Mayor Gregor Robertson are blunt in their assessment of the situation: The city is in the grips of a mental-health crisis. It is comparable in scope, they say, to the drug overdose deaths and HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged the Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s.

The incident involving the mother and her daughter is relatively mild compared with other recent events.

In February, a man walking his dog was eviscerated by a knife-wielding attacker. A month later, a woman shopping at a convenience store was pounced on and stabbed so violently the assailant's knife blade broke off in the victim's head.

Last December, three elderly women had their heads kicked and stomped on by a man in a series of beatings over the course of a day. In all of these cases, the perpetrators suffered from severe mental illnesses.

Needless to say, they should not have been out on the streets.

"This has been a long-standing situation in Vancouver, but over the past 20 months there has been an alarming increase in the number of incidents involving people with severe mental illnesses," Mr. Robertson told me this week. "We have a major problem on our hands here and we need to do something about it now. We can't afford to let it go on any longer."

Mr. Robertson is right. This has been an enduring issue, certainly since Riverview, a hospital for those with mental health issues, was downsized in the 1980s and eventually closed. Literally hundreds of people once in the institution ended up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Many of these same people began taking drugs such as crystal methamphetamines, which has caused major brain damage in many cases.

This has driven the spike in violent crimes that the city and police are seeing.

The mayor says research indicates that at least 300 of the more than 2,000 people living in the city and considered to be severely mentally ill require institutionalization of some form. Of that overall number, nearly 700 are not getting medication they need, which is also causing the surge in violence among this group.

While the provincial government has poured millions into trying to wrestle with the problem, it has not been enough. Both the mayor and police chief are asking the province to open a new, 300-bed facility to house the mentally ill most prone to violence. So far, the province is balking at the idea, saying more research needs to be done on this subgroup of the mentally ill.

This week, Mr. Robertson announced the formation of a task force on mental health and addictions. In structure, it will be similar to one he established five years ago to deal with the city's homelessness problem, with which this issue has been compared in terms of its breadth and complexity.

"The combination of severe mental illness, addictions and homelessness has created enormous instability in the core of our city and it's spreading," Mr. Robertson said. "Our most vulnerable people aren't getting the support they need and the situation is now critical. People's lives are at risk."

And will be for some time yet.

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