In Maple Ridge, it's not just another call for help

Ken Carlson, owner of The Bookcase on 119th Avenue, with a ‘We can’t help’ sticker on the door to his store.  - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Ken Carlson, owner of The Bookcase on 119th Avenue, with a ‘We can’t help’ sticker on the door to his store.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

Police officers are on the front line in dealing with people with mental illness. In Maple Ridge, a new approach is helping reduce calls for service and get people the help they need.

Const. Cara Thompson remembers the girl when she was homeless and lived in one of the many wooded or vacant lots that dot downtown Maple Ridge.

Addicted to crystal meth and mentally ill, she was a frequent subject of 911 calls.

Mounties at the Ridge Meadows RCMP detachment knew her as the girl who had given birth to a baby in the bushes.

“A bunch of us had tried to help several times,” says Thompson.

Police would intervene, take her to hospital or a treatment centre, but the girl would always run away.

“She wasn’t committing any criminal acts, but she was always yelling, walking around the streets at night,” says Thompson, a designated mental health liaison who has been working with the Fraser Health Authority and other community partners for two and half years.

Thompson’s job is one that police officers across Canada are familiar with. Police are, by default, becoming the informal first responders of the mental health system, and often play such a role without the necessary resources or support to carry it out properly.

The B.C. Early Intervention Study found individuals who seek help voluntarily from emergency wards are often deemed not sick enough to qualify for limited acute care resources.

The same study found that more than 30 per cent of people with serious mental illness had contact with the police while making, or attempting to make, their first contact with mental health.

These people often tie up scant police resources and force officers to take on the role of social worker.

“Sometimes we have multiple calls from the same person. It’s those calls we want to reduce by working with our community partners,” said Cpl. Alanna Dunlop, explaining why the Ridge Meadows RCMP began tracking calls involving mental health issues and started to work with addictions and health care professionals to get the callers help.

In Maple Ridge last year, police logged more than 665 files that involved mental health issues, and even that figure is a conservative estimate.

The skinny, toothless addict who Thompson vividly remembers is one of their success stories.

Two years after RCMP and staff from the Maple Ridge mental health unit first came in contact with her, the girl is off the street. She has a full set of teeth and both her children back.

“You see her walking down the street, pushing her kids in a stroller, you wouldn’t even recognize her,” says Thompson.

Thompson’s role now involves identifying individuals with mental health issues and entering information into the police database that helps front line officers. That includes information on what might trigger the individual to act out, the drugs they use or even something as simple as a phone number of a family member an officer can contact for help.

“If the front-line officers know that, it improves our response, as well as our dealings with that person and the end result, which is getting them healthy so we don’t have repeat calls for service,” said Dunlop.

For Thompson and Judy Russell, a registered psychiatric nurse who works closely with Mounties, the job is rewarding.

“We have people with mental health problems who never come out of their house. We’ve had people who’ve had 20 police files, but no police officer has seen them. To get them hooked up with programs is great,” said Thompson, whose case load can fluctuate from 30 to 10 files.

Earlier this month, Ridge Meadows RCMP and Fraser Health signed a formal agreement that outlines their roles and responsibilities when it comes to dealing with people suffering from a mental illness.

In the past, the mental health unit in Maple Ridge wouldn’t know if a client has had repeated contact with police. Now, officers and trained health care professionals met regularly to brainstorm how best to help them.

“Fraser Health is committed to quality care and we feel we can do a better job if we are all working in tandem with other partners,” said Ken McDonald, who manages Fraser Health’s mental health unit in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide quality care to people when they are asking for it. Police have a role in addressing mental health in the community and we can assist them with that by educating them about mental health disorders and substance use issues. As with anything in health care, our ultimate goal is for people to live healthier lives and make healthier choices and get more out of their quality of life.”

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