05/03/2012 03:59 EDT | Updated 07/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Your Police Officer is not Your Therapist


To a large extent, spending money on more training for how police can best deal with people with mental illnesses is a total waste.

The U.S.-based Treatment Advocacy Center has it right when they say, "Police Training Yes, but Treatment Definitely." I am referring to the recent announcement by the the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Madeleine Meilleur, that the Ontario Government will review how the police respond to the mentally ill.

This latest concern about an age-old problem has resulted from a number of fatal shootings involving the police and people with mental illness in Toronto. The usual response in the past has been to convene a Coroner's Inquest into these incidents. After months and sometimes years, the inquests all come up with a list of recommendations which are mostly ignored.

But, contained in the Globe and Mail report on this latest move by Ontario may be the reason these altercations between police and mentally ill people happen in the first place. The Globe stated

"the closing of beds and the move away from institutionalized mental-health care in Canada has put the responsibility of responding to people in crisis more and more in the hands of the police, who have limited access to health-care experts in these crucial moments."

We do not provide treatment for people, but allow them to wander the streets in varying stages of psychosis. If these poor souls were allowed to be treated, the incidents with the police would be reduced. In fact, Minister Meilleur should take a look at the Ontario Select Committee Report on Mental Health and Addictions released in 2010. Recommendation 21 (p.31) states that a further task force should be set up to look at improving the legislation with respect to involuntary treatment. That task force was to report back to the legislature within one year of adoption the entire report.

That was 2010 and this is 2012. We're all waiting.

The police are not mental health professionals and they should not be expected to spend as much time as they do dealing with sick people. In fact, the Vancouver Police Department issued a report in 2008 called, "Lost in Transition: How a Lack of Capacity in the Mental Health System is Failing Vancouver's Mentally Ill and Draining Police Resources." On page 9, the report states that during a sample period, 31 per cent of police calls involved at least one mentally ill person.

In a study done for the London, Ontario Police Department, it was found that between 1998 and 2001, contact with people who suffered mental illness cost the city between $1.5 and $2.4 million.

The Globe article also quoted psychologist, Dorothy Cotton, who is or was a member of a group called Psychiatrists in Blue, part of the Canadian National Committee for Police/Mental Health Liaison. I mentioned this group in my own book on schizophrenia. The primary goal of the organization is to try to ensure that individuals with mental illness are not criminalized.

In the U.S., this concept was expressed very eloquently by Seminole Florida County sheriff, Donald S. Eslinger who said that "sheriffs are not medical professionals," and yet his officers are called on more and more to deal with dangerous situations involving those with serious untreated mental illness.

Our police should not be put into this role and the role would be considerably lessened if we provided proper treatment and resources to those who are ill.

My comment to the concerned cabinet minister in Ontario is to put the money to be used for this study into resources, and to resurrect the task force recommended to look into the laws on involuntary treatment.