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toward peace of mind: mental health in b.c.

The course was developed by the B.C. Justice Ministry working with police and other experts.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Part two of Toward Peace of Mind: Mental Health in B.C., our four-part series on the state of the mental health system. Part one, chronicling one man's 15-year struggle with mental illness, can be read here.

Out on patrol, encounters between the police and the mentally ill likely will rarely be as calm and serene as on this recent sunny afternoon.

In a classroom of the Justice Institute, a provincial training centre for public security officials, a dozen rookie police officers from departments across the Lower Mainland are being trained to help them deal with calls involving mentally ill individuals.

After hearing lectures and engaging in role-playing, the officers focused on dialogue.

Four people at a table at the front of the classroom are taking questions from the officers – both sides encouraged by instructor Linda Stewart, a retired Vancouver police officer with 34 years service.

Two of the four are mothers of mentally ill sons.

And there are two men with schizophrenia disorders – one of them Lyle Richardson, who has been arrested as a robbery suspect and handcuffed on Vancouver streets while in the throes of his schizoaffective disorder. Two to three times a month, the 39-year-old participates in these training sessions.

For two hours, the two groups have been learning from each other, with the guests talking about mental illness and their experiences with the police. At one point, a cadet asks the guests for overall, bottom-line advice.

Keep it on the friendly level, with humour, says one speaker. "Just remember. You're seeing these people probably at their worst, and there's family members who really care about them," said one of the mothers. Mr. Richardson talks up the virtues of a Car 87 model, which has Vancouver Police Department officers paired with registered or psychiatric nurses to offer on-site assessments and management of people with psychiatric problems.

The other mother offers a cinematic suggestion. "Watch the Silver Linings Playbook."

All of this is part of a new approach in managing contacts between British Columbia police and those with mental-health issues – a response to various incidents that have had tragic outcomes.

Prompted by the Braidwood Inquiry into the 2007 death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in a fatal confrontation with four Mounties at Vancouver International Airport, all B.C. police officers have been compelled to take new crisis intervention and de-escalation training to help officers respond more effectively to those in a mental-health crisis.

Once officers have taken the course, they are supposed to take a refresher every three years. The course was developed by the B.C. Justice Ministry working with police and other experts. It includes an online component and classroom session. Police forces have described it as a more formalized version of past training. "As police training has evolved, we've labelled and enhanced our training around dealing with people in crisis," said Corporal Steve Huscoe of the RCMP's research and development unit in B.C.

To date, 4,000 officers have been through the course since it began in January, 2012, with hundreds more to go. There are about 6,000 officers in the RCMP municipal forces and independent municipal forces in B.C. At the VPD, for example, 90 per cent of front-line officers have been trained. Mounties are taking the course as part of regular refresher training taken every three years at the force's Pacific Region Training Centre in Chilliwack.

"This isn't about turning police officers into mental-health experts," said Justice Minister Shirley Bond. Instead, she said, it's about offering tools for de-escalating confrontations, where possible, before the use of force.

Ms. Bond said police officers have told her they are having increasing encounters with the mentally ill. At least 30 per cent of VPD calls involve at least one person with a mental illness, according to a 2008 study – so the course, which was developed at the Justice is an important step. The B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association has also praised the course as a valid tool in improving contacts between police and the mentally ill.

During a day of the course, The Globe and Mail observed, Ms. Stewart tutored students on a calm approach to calls involving emotionally disturbed persons. She urged patience and listening. People with these afflictions have health issues, and are not criminals, said Ms. Stewart.

At one point, she screened the video of Mr. Dziekanski's fatal encounter with the RCMP, and talks about what the officers did wrong: No designated spokesman, a rush to action that was unnecessary because Mr. Dziekanski was in a confined space not in a position to harm anyone, no use of hand signals to overcome the language barrier. Ms. Stewart wonders, aloud, why no one simply gave Mr.. Dizekanski a cellphone so he could reach out to someone.

As a police cadet herself in the 1970s, Ms. Stewart said there was no such training. "We weren't given much about persons with a mental illness. They kind of just sent you out there. We really weren't too prepared, certainly not as much as they are now," said Ms. Stewart, who retired in 2009 – the same year she began teaching at the Justice Institute.

David Boyd said he would relish speaking to Ms. Stewart's class. His bipolar son was shot dead by Vancouver police in 2007 after 911 reports that he was swinging a bike chain drew officers into a confrontation in a popular shopping district. Paul Boyd was shot nine times over 80 seconds. The involved officer did not face criminal charges nor was he disciplined. A bystander's video, about a year ago, prompted the B.C. government to commission further investigation into the incident.

David Boyd, a retired math professor at the University of British Columbia, said he would talk to officers about how the mentally ill need time to respond in confrontations with police. While not specifically familiar with the details of the new course, he said it could have value if there is strict testing to ensure students are absorbing the material. "It's no good telling someone something unless they appreciate it," he said in an interview.

From his perspective at the front of the classroom, Mr. Richardson said it feels like he's making a difference. He said officers appear intrigued. In the course, they see the mentally ill not in crisis, but able to explain what crisis is like. The officers also learn they can help someone access mental-health treatment. "[The police officers] are the gateway to the system," Mr. Richardson said.

Editor's Note: A version of this article published in print on April 8 and previous online versions referred to David Boyd, whose son, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was shot dead by Vancouver police in 2007. The article incorrectly said police arrived after calls to 911 saying that Paul Boyd was swinging a bike chain. In fact, the police report said Paul Boyd was acting in a bizarre manner and waving his arms at a customer, precipitating the 911 calls, and there is no evidence he was swinging the bike chain before police arrived.