09/13/2013 02:30 EDT | Updated 11/13/2013 05:12 EST

Mental Health Crisis In Vancouver Growing, Say Mayor, Police Chief

VANCOUVER - Cops with guns won't solve the growing trouble with the mentally ill in Vancouver, said the city's police Chief Jim Chu as he and the mayor implored the provincial government for more help.

Chu and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called a news conference Friday to lay out what they said is a crisis situation on city streets with those who are severely mentally ill.

"The answer for someone suffering a mental-health crisis is not a cop with a gun. When a crime is committed, often our only option is to arrest, prosecute and jail that offender," said Chu.

"We need a shift from dealing with the crisis to preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place."

St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver has seen during the past three years a 43 per cent increase in people with severe mental-health trouble or addiction, and about 21 per cent of the Vancouver police's call volume involves someone who is mentally ill, Chu said.

Robertson, who is also the police board chairman, said police have identified 96 serious incidents, ranging from suicides to violent attacks, involving those with mental illness.

"Lets be clear: These are entirely preventable incidents. They involve people who have serious mental illnesses who are not getting the health care, support and treatment that they need."

Earlier this year, 33-year-old Jerome Bonneric was charged with 12 counts of assault after stabbing numerous people in a Vancouver condominium building.

His lawyer told the media outside the court after the man was remanded for a psychiatric assessment that his client had mental health issues.

In December, a man was arrested in nothing but his underwear for what appeared to be random attacks on three elderly women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Roberton said he has lobbied the provincial government on the issue but had yet to hear back.

In Kamloops, Health Minister Terry Lake said he was willing to work with the city on the issue.

"I don't think it's helpful to push panic buttons and point fingers. If anything I'm a little disappointed that that's what seems to be happening. We're all British Columbians, we all want to do the best we can for the people we serve."

Lake said government officials will be meeting with Vancouver officials on Monday.

The minister said the government has made it a priority to build a comprehensive system for mental health and substance use.

Chu said a few issues exacerbate the problem, including those who self-medicate with legal drugs.

"We do have a lot of people from elsewhere in Canada who realize it's a warm climate and we do have the opportunities in Vancouver for services and that attracts people from elsewhere, as well," he added.

Lake responded that the problem isn't just in B.C., but that other big cities such as Toronto have also seen an increase in such violent behaviour.

"What we're coming to understand is that this may be something new that we haven't seen before. What physicians and others have told me is that what we may be looking at is a condition of permanent brain damage, acquired brain injury, due to use of drugs like methamphetamines and other designer drugs."

The mayor and chief have suggested a five-point plan to address the situation, including adding 300 long-term, mental-health treatment beds and more BC Housing facilities staff to help the mentally ill.

They are also calling for an enhanced crisis centre to ensure consistent and expert care and the creation of an outreach team, staffed by police and the members of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, for mentally ill people.

The mayor said police can't continue to be the first point of contact for the mentally ill.

"Mental health is the responsibly of the B.C. government, and there have been many calls around the closure of Riverview and the lack of new facilities since that time to ensure that there is an adequate supply of treatment beds," Robertson said.

Riverview, once a home for mentally ill in Port Coquitlam, B.C., was first opened in 1913 but began taking fewer patients in the 1990s.

The facility was closed last year, and the last patients were moved to other facilities around the Lower Mainland. (CHNL)

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