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A man makes his way past the closed down police headquarters located at 312 Main Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 19, 2013.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When Stephen Hart saw a dishevelled man screaming and waving his arms at passing cars while on an evening stroll in Vancouver's West End last July, he immediately called the police.

Dr. Hart, a clinical psychology professor who consults with law enforcement on how to engage people with mental illness, had just watched the man scream at a bus stop full of people and knock the hat off another man's head before walking through traffic.

Maintaining a safe distance of about nine metres, Dr. Hart followed the man for about four minutes until officers arrived. The two who responded seemed to know the man and began bantering with him as they tried to figure out where he was staying (a shelter in the city's Downtown Eastside) and how to get him back there (by voluntarily getting in the back seat of the cruiser for a ride).

Vancouver police officers respond to a call involving a mentally ill person 75 times a day, and such a peaceful, friendly resolution is what happens most of the time, said Dr. Hart, whose work at Simon Fraser University focuses on how authorities assess violent risk and psychopathic personality disorder.

Despite two high-profile police shootings of distraught men in Surrey and Vancouver in the past two months, people should not be reluctant to call 911 when they see a person who may be experiencing a psychotic episode, Dr. Hart said. Police are often the first to respond to such situations and, under Section 28 of B.C.'s Mental Health Act, can immediately take a person to a physician if the officer believes they are endangering themselves or others. Last year, the VPD recorded 3,010 such calls, up from 2,872 in 2013, police spokesman Constable Brian Montague said.

People need to trust their instincts on whether the person is, in fact, a danger, Dr. Hart said. If, for example, a person is huddled on a curb wailing, it can help to engage them with respect while using "strong and clear signals with your words and your body language that you're not angry, you're not aggressive and you are not suspicious or distrustful of them.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of helping them sit up or offering to get them a cup of coffee, but it's amazing what a little bit of treating people with dignity can get you," Dr. Hart said. "People with mental illnesses are sometimes feeling alienated, like they're not part of regular society and that nobody cares about them.

"And you know what? They're actually right in a lot of respects."

If a person is shouting angrily at others or gesticulating wildly and acting erratically, Dr. Hart recommended phoning 911, giving them a wide berth and making sure not to appear either "negative or fearful," cues that the person in distress might misread.

If a person approaches you and invades your personal space, Dr. Hart recommended saying very clearly, "Stop it, you're behaving inappropriately," and walking away.

Doug King, a lawyer and police accountability campaigner for the Pivot Legal Society, said that in an ideal situation, the caller would have time to stay on the line and watch the person until police arrive and remain there to observe the conduct of the officers.

Jonny Morris, public policy director for the Canadian Mental Health Association's B.C. division, said that throughout the process, it is important for people to remember the person in distress is having a health emergency.

Mr. Morris said police in the region have improved their response to such calls in recent years and other departments would be well served to follow a recent policy directive in Portland. It sets out concrete steps for officers to take to prevent the use of violence or lethal force when encountering someone in a mental health crisis.

Mr. Morris added that people should educate themselves about mental health issues and that HereToHelp.ca is a good resource.