THE CITY: As psychiatric beds close, calls to law enforcement rise
By IAN GILLESPIE, The London Free Press
Last Updated: May 6, 2012 5:05pm
Nothing about mental illness is simple. But when it comes to the role of police, London police Deputy Chief John Pare holds an uncomplicated view.
“It’s a health issue,” he says. “It’s not a police issue.”
And it’s about time we understood that — particularly as we start National Mental Health Week.
During the past few decades, we’ve moved further and further away from institutionalized mental-health care. Psychiatric wards and hospitals have been closed. Beds have disappeared. But the problem of mental illness (which reportedly affects one in five Canadians) has never left us.
And police have been forced to pick up the slack.
Pare says that from 2005 to 2009, the number of incidents involving London police and individuals afflicted with mental-health problems increased 12%; more significantly, the average amount of police time needed to deal with those incidents rose 32%.
It’s not unusual, Pare says, for a police officer (or two) to devote six hours or more to a call involving a mentally unstable individual taken to hospital.
“Go down to the hospital any day of the week and you’ll see multiple cruisers parked out there,” says Pare. “And generally, they’re not there for anything other than mental health (incidents). It chews up a large amount of our resources.”
From a police perspective, it’s a misguided use of resources and skills.
“The police have a mandate in terms of the safety and protection of people,” says Pare. “But when it comes to mental health . . . our contact is not helping the situation. It’s not what we see as an effective therapeutic process.”
Pare doesn’t believe the solution lies in more police training.
“Making police better clinicians is not the answer,” he adds. “The challenge to the community is to create a different model, one that shifts from the point of crisis to a model that aims to prevent the crisis.”
In the vast majority of cases, which don’t involve violence, Pare says the best strategy is to remove police from the equation altogether.
“Less police involvement,” he says. “What we really need to do is . . . have a better plan in place to deal with the situation before a crisis occurs.”
There’s a growing awareness that current practices are failing. In response to a string of fatal Toronto shootings, Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Madeleine Meilleur has ordered her department to review how police across the province respond to situations involving individuals with mental illness.
And on Monday, Pare joins Youth Opportunities Unlimited executive director Steve Cordes and Dr. Beth Mitchell, director of the mental health-care program at London Health Sciences Centre, for a panel discussion at Windermere Manor about helping young people with mental-health problems. (The panel is aimed at mental-health professionals and is not open to the public.) Pare admits he doesn’t have all the answers, but says any solution likely involves education (so families know where to turn for help), better integration of existing mental-health agencies (which often compete for funding) and the establishment of a front-line mental-health crisis team that’s available 24/7.
“It’s time to make changes,” he says.
“I think the whole community has to come together with a new model that works. Because this is not working.”
Ian Gillespie is the Free Press city columnist.