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Police chiefs sound alarm for mentally ill

VANCOUVER - There has been a significant increase in the number of interactions between police and people with mental illness over the past five to seven years, says a new report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have warned repeatedly that police are becoming the first line of contact for the mentally ill.

The report, which was released Wednesday, said a lack of treatment and support for people with mental-health problems, along with the stigma of mental illness, leave police to deal with those in crisis.

"I think we'd all agree that certainly in many communities there's a need for more — and more accessible — mental-health community programming and services for many of these people that police ultimately end up interacting with," said Dr. Terry Coleman, one of the report's two authors.

The report looks solely at police training. It is the third such report, following previous releases in 2008 and 2010.

"The education and training are about recognizing behaviour ... and how to best handle that by how they speak and how they conduct themselves to avoid the situation escalating," he said.

Coleman and co-author Dorothy Cotton found that most police organizations are doing a reasonable job training officers about how to deal with people with mental-health issues.

Virtually all police academies include a firm grounding in understanding mental illness, the report said.

But there are gaps, the authors said, and they made 16 recommendations for improvement, including:

— More training in non-physical intervention, calming techniques and de-escalation.

— Anti-stigma education to challenge attitudes toward people with mental illness.

— Provincial policing standards that include mandatory basic and periodic requalification in training for mental-health situations.

— Training teams that include mental-health professionals, mental-health advocates and — most importantly — people living with mental illness.

"Direct interaction is best for changing behaviours," the report said.

The report was released at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in Victoria, where more than 400 law enforcement leaders gathered.

Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill, the association's newly elected president, said mental illness is a challenge for officers.

"It's a continuing large problem right across Canada, dealing with people who have mental illness, substance abuse issues, who come into contact with police," Weighill said.

But many police agencies are well on their way to meeting these recommendations already, he said, and more now have crisis teams that include mental-health professionals, which can be called out to aid front-line officers.

Federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney welcomed the report, but he said the judicial system cannot be used to solve health issues.

"As important as police training in matters of mental health is, police are not doctors and should never be expected to act as such," the federal minister said after a speech to police chiefs.

Health care is the explicit jurisdiction of provinces, he said.

"We'll look to our provincial partners to provide the necessary intervention and assistance for the mentally ill before they encounter the criminal justice system."

- Follow @ByDeneMoore on Twitter

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