Law enforcement officials, people who live with mental illness and advocates gathered in Toronto over the last three days to discuss what could be done to avert tragedies involving those in crisis.
The conference — hosted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police — came at a time when statistics suggest one in five Canadians experience a mental health illness in any given year.
"One of the important takeaways that we'll have as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is a national framework for training all of our officers," said Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu, who also heads the police chiefs association.
It's a significant development as a lack of national standards has been a key issue for police and mental health advocates —there isn't currently a countrywide training curriculum for officers on how to deal with the mentally ill, nor is there comprehensive data collected on the issue.
Certain police forces have been singled out as "pockets of excellence," while others lag behind, but across the country there's a consensus that police are increasingly on the front lines of mental health care.
A summary of the training framework released at the conference provided a glimpse into a longer report, expected in June, which will lay out recommended education for officers and standards for agencies.
The document, produced by experts at the Mental Health Commission with some input from police, will then be presented to police leaders across the country in the hopes they will implement it.
"It's a good model and I'm optimistic and very confident that the CCAC membership will support it," Chu said.
Having a set of national standards will help forces better respond to the growing amount of calls related to those with mental illness, added Toronto police Deputy Chief Mike Federico.
"Recognizing that there are common themes right across Canada can help provide excellent public service to our community," he said. "The establishment of a national framework can help us focus our resources on where they're most effective."
The few figures available emphasize the need for a collaborative approach — in Toronto police get 20,000 calls a year directly related to mental health issues while police in Vancouver say mental illness was a factor in 21 per cent of their calls last year.
Although the majority of those calls end peacefully, the handful that result in the death of a person in crisis has led to accusations of police brutality.
One such instance was the case of Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim, who was shot multiple times while apparently wielding a knife on an empty streetcar. Another was the case of Michael Eligon, also of Toronto, who died on a residential street after approaching officers with two pairs of scissors while wearing only a hospital gown and socks.
"I know the public is concerned about the harm that can come to a loved one or friend who is afflicted with a mental illness," said Chu. "Any type of force used by the police must only be used as a last resort."
The very nature of policing has changed over the last few years as apprehension under the Mental Health Act has skyrocketed, Chu said.
"One of the things I used to say was that police were the mental health response agency of last resort. The police are increasingly becoming the mental health response agency of first resort," he said.
"With this new policing responsibility goes a mindset change that we need to engage in."
Part of that mindset change is also an emphasis on openly discussing and supporting the mental health of police officers themselves.
"That has been the second large component of this conference," said Louise Bradley, CEO of the Mental Health Commission. "It's extremely important that we look at workplace wellness, workplace culture."
The conference, which drew 320 participants, committed to including the experiences of those who have lived with mental illness in further training or policymaking.
It also committed to working with Statistics Canada and other organizations to better measure police calls related to mental illness and try developing new tools to collect and analyze such data.
"It's major step forward," Bradley said. "And a very bold step forward."