By Joe Fantauzzi
Jul 13, 2011 – 10:10 AM
York Regional Police responded to more calls about emotionally disturbed people last year than in 2009.
With that as a backdrop, a group representing Ontario’s police chiefs supports de-emphasizing police involvement with people with mental illness or addictions and better funding for support services.
A resolution, passed last month by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, calls for the province to improve mental health care in the province and
declares people with mental illness and addiction are best served by that system.
That police support of provincial action on mental health services, specifically those aimed at reaching people with psychiatric and addiction needs so
they don’t run afoul of the law, pleases Carol Lever, the director of integration and quality improvement with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s
York Region branch.
“This doesn’t say to me the police are looking to pull back,” she said. “We would prefer to catch (people with mental illness) before they’re involved
with the criminal justice system.”
An immediate release of provincial funding would go a long way to help the agency improve early intervention in mental illness cases, she added.
Police officers are often the first people to encounter mentally ill people, who often face a patchwork of social services, meaning the criminal justice
system is often their entry point to getting help, the chiefs say.
“It’s something we’ve been wrestling with for quite a while,” the association’s government relations director, Joe Couto, said.
Police leaders are not trying to abdicate their responsibility, he insisted. Rather, they don’t want officers to be the first point of contact unless it
is absolutely necessary, because mental health professionals are specially trained to deal with mentally ill people.
Locally, York Regional Police were called 2,015 times last year to deal with what it terms an “emotionally disturbed person” — 293 more times than in 2009.
Officers were also called to 969 suicide attempts in 2010 — up from 917 the year before.
To a certain extent, the response to emotionally disturbed persons involving police already includes mental health engagement, according to Staff Sgt.
Mike Fleischaker, who oversees the force’s mental health support unit.
When the unit’s officers are called to speak to a person exhibiting signs of mental illness, they approach in plain clothes and speak in a calm fashion,
usually out of the public’s view, to try to de-escalate any distress the person may be experiencing.
The officers will point the person to resources in the community and work to develop a coping plan, he said.
Officers must be adept at finding what works for the people they encounter, given the myriad manifestations of mental illness, he noted.
“It’s certainly not a cookie cutter situation,” he said.
He doesn’t believe police dealing with people with mental illnesses is going away anytime soon.
“You are certainly not going to see York Regional Police do away with their mental health support team,” he said.
As the provincial election campaign ramps up, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have the issue on their agendas.
The province released its mental health strategy June 22, which it says aims to create more co-ordinated, responsive and client-based mental health and
addictions services in Ontario.
The strategy will involve a $257-million, three-year investment for child and youth mental health, according to the province.
But Newmarket-Aurora PC MPP Frank Klees, who welcomed the police chiefs’ resolution, took aim at the government’s strategy, alleging it does not provide adequate resources to deliver on the vision.
“A vision without resources is futile,” he said.
His party is committed to a mental health strategy and “properly resourcing it”, he said, noting governments that don’t invest in mental health supports
and leave police to do the job are penny wise and pound foolish.
“This is an area we need priority investment of resources,” he said.
Mental health is often a subject people don’t want to talk about and that leads to parents not getting their children the treatment they need, he added.
While he believes people who break the law should be held to account, what people with mental illness encounter in the criminal justice system is punishment, Mr. Klees said.
“That’s why we have the recidivism we often have,” he added.
Oak Ridges-Markham Liberal MPP Helena Jaczek could not be reached for comment.
Ultimately, all of the agencies will work together to help people with mental illness, Staff Sgt. Fleischaker said.
“A lot of people just don’t know where to turn,” he added.