But Louise Bradley also cautions there's no easy answer.
"There isn't, unfortunately, one thing that will fix it all," said Bradley. "It is a variety of things and a very complex issue."
Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill says it's one of the biggest policing problems that has emerged in the last 10 to 15 years.
"We're dealing with homeless people. We're dealing with people who have mental health/addiction problems," he said. "People call us. We end up putting intoxicated people in our detention areas. They don't belong there.
"It's a health issue, not a crime issue."
A coroner's inquest is scheduled this fall into the deaths of three people with possible mental health issues who were shot by Toronto police.
Michael Eligon, 29, was killed in February 2012 after fleeing from Toronto East General Hospital, where he had been involuntarily admitted under the Mental Health Act.
He was dressed in a hospital gown and armed with two pairs of scissors.
Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25, died in August 2010 after pulling a knife when police confronted him on a public transit bus for acting irrationally.
Sylvia Klibingaitis called 911 from her home and said she was going to commit a crime. When officers went to her house, Klibingaitis walked toward the officers with the knife in her hand.
And on Sept. 10, 2012, a former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder was fatally shot by RCMP in Surrey, B.C., after coming at an officer with an axe.
B.C.'s police watchdog agency said the officers involved acted appropriately, but relatives of Greg Matters said the actions of the officers escalated the situation and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association called for an investigation into whether the shooting could have been avoided.
Bradley, who was scheduled to speak Thursday at the Canadian Association of Police Boards' annual meeting in Saskatoon, said she would talk about how the worlds of policing and mental health intersect and how those in the mental health field can work more effectively with first responders.
"I think that there is a lack of understanding overall of mental health problems and illnesses, but that's not just for police officers. That unfortunately is the case in many areas, including health care itself," said Bradley.
"It's something that isn't well understood."
Bradley is a registered nurse with a master's of science degree specializing in mental health. She has worked on the front line and in mental health care in corrections.
She said the lack of understanding of mental health illness puzzles her.
"I've been in mental health for about 30 years and while I'm encouraged that this is a time when we are taking about mental health more openly than we ever have before, I still don't understand why it is that there is such stigma attached to it," she said.
"There's virtually none of us that are not impacted in some way, either ourselves, a family member or a close friend or a work colleague. And yet it's shrouded in secrecy, it's shrouded in shame and embarrassment."
Bradley said she hopes that at the end of the conference there will be "clear, discernible action items" to help mental health workers collaborate with police.
Education and training is just a start, she said.
"But it isn't as simple as saying 'OK, we're going to go in and give you a day's (education) and then you know how to do it,' " she said.
"In the same way that we do CPR training and we have to get re-certified every year, it's something that's ongoing."
— By Jennifer Graham in Regina with files from CJWWSuggest a correction