B.C. mental health advocates push for change in police approach to crisis calls

May 1 marks the start of Mental Health Week across Canada, and with that comes growing calls to rethink how people with mental health issues are treated in times of crisis.

Police wellness checks, like the ones in 2020 that left Shanna Blanchard of Nanaimo bloody and with a broken tooth, and Kelowna nursing student Mona Wang on the ground with a police officer stepping on her head, are why mental health advocates say police don’t always need to get involved.

According to the B.C. Coroner’s Service, a high rate of police calls that end in death involve people in crisis. A 2019 death review panel found that seven out of 10 deaths that occurred within 24 hours of police contact involved a "mental health issue."

“That provides moral imperative here to act,” said Jonny Morris, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. chapter.

In Eugene, Oregon, a service known as Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) responds to mental health calls, using a pairing of a crisis worker and a medic. Police are not involved. Morris believes a service like CAHOOTS would be successful in B.C.

“We’re seeing that right now with the implementation of a civilian team on the North Shore. They’ve taken over 250 calls and have not had to rely on police attending, which means other options are available.”

An all-party report on policing released last week recommends integrating mental health calls into the 9-1-1 system, so those that are not criminal in nature can be directed to a crisis worker for immediate support.

“We’re all trained to call 9-1-1 since we’re kids, and I think it is time to broaden the level of response when you’re talking to a dispatcher,” said Morris

Including mental health alongside police, fire and ambulance calls would be a bold, systemic shift that’s long overdue, according to some Indigenous leaders.

Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old mother and member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island, was killed on June 4 in Edmunston New Brunswick.

The president of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, which has been calling for justice ever since, says that case is one of the reasons that change is so urgent and so critical.

“We need to be able to improve now,” said Judith Sayers.

“We just can’t wait for more of our people to be shot and killed.”

With mental health concerns being exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, St. John Ambulance is drawing attention to two mental health first aid courses it currently offers. The courses offer ways of identifying mental health struggles in others and how to approach someone who could be in crisis. The charity says one in three people will struggle with mental health at some point in their lives, so ending the stigma is critical.

“We all need to have the skills in how to recognize someone needs help, and how to talk to that person,” said Romy Ralph, learning and development officer.

“We need to know if it’s safe for us to be talking to that individual”

In some mental health crises, police do need to get involved, however, advocates say officers should always be accompanied with a civilian whose specializes in crisis intervention.

“There’s a range of issues that could be dealt with by people who know how to do those things as opposed to the police, who have some trauma-informed training but not a lot,” said Sayers.