Mental health conversation not over

As cars whizz past her, a woman does tai-chi in the middle of Lougheed Highway.

Seemingly unaware of the world around her, passersby can’t talk her off the street.

“We have to respond because she is putting herself in danger,” said Const. Cara Thomson.

Police arrive, bundle the woman into a car and take her to Ridge Meadows Hospital. But after a long wait in emergency, the officers have nowhere to take her but the cold, concrete cells at the RCMP detachment.

The next morning, she’s sent back on the street.

You can hear the frustration in Const. Thomson’s voice as she describes an endless loop.

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 hospital doesn’t want to deal with them because of the drugs and the drug treatment places don’t want to deal with them because of mental health issues, said Thomson, a designated RCMP mental health liaison who has been working with the Fraser Health Authority and other community partners for the past four years.

“They can bounce back and forth.”

Ridge Meadows RCMP deal with around 600 Mental Health Act calls annually and say each file puts a strain on already scarce resources.

From January to Aug. 31 this year, RCMP had already logged 534 Mental Health Act files, interacting with 390 different people.

Thomson receives between 60 and 80 referrals a month from other officers.

“We are talking about significant social issues. This is police time that is spent on these issues,” said Cpl. Alanna Dunlop.

When the detachment noticed a steady increase in calls related to mental illness, officers began tracking them in 2008. That tracking led to the creation of Thomson’s position.

Thompson’s role now involves identifying individuals with mental health issues and entering information into the police database that helps frontline 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.

“We’ve had a lot of progress,” said Dunlop.

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 meet regularly to brainstorm how best to help them.

Despite the progress, RCMP in Maple Ridge and their counterparts in Vancouver say there is little being done to stem what they see as a “mental health crisis.”

In response, the District of Maple Ridge drafted a resolution that called for Riverview Hospital to be reopened as a modern centre of excellence, with patient-centred wraparound care.

The resolution won support Friday at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention and has sparked a discussion that police see as a step in the right direction.

“We are going to have to work together, with the common goal of making our society healthier so we are not responding to these calls,” said Dunlop.

B.C., however, won’t reopen Riverview Hospital, not even in a modern form.

That was Premier Christy Clark’s response to the UBCM resolution.

“We’re not considering that,” Clark said Friday, after the convention. “The folks [who] we are all so concerned about, who are living homeless in British Columbia, are not from Riverview. It’s a new set of problems we need to deal with.”

Clark said she shared UBCM delegates’ desire to improve mental health care and highlighted provincial investments in affordable housing and treatment.

She added an improved economy will help pay for more social programs.

“As we grow the economy, we will grow our ability to be able to look after what appeared in the past to be these unsolvable problems.”

The premier’s response disappointed Bob Masse, the Maple Ridge councillor who proposed the UBCM resolution.

“They are failing to acknowledge the problem and what is part of the solution,” he said.

“We spend more per capita than any other province on health care, but our results are certainly not good. We have the longest waits for psychiatric care in Canada.”

Masse isn’t ready to give up. He said civic politicians have committed to pressuring the province to fund more resources.

“We are going to strategize,” Masse added.

“This was Round 1 of however long it takes to find a solution.”

The government of B.C. insists that building a comprehensive system of mental health and substance use services across the province is a priority.

This fiscal year, the Ministry of Health spent over $1.3 billion on mental health and drug treatment services – a 58 per cent increase from 13 years ago.

Despite the spending, Simon Fraser University associate professor Marina Morrow says resources and community-based supports are still inadequate.

“The problems we are seeing in our communities and our streets is really the neglect we’ve seen to community-based health care and our social welfare programs,” Morrow added.

Morrow does not support reopening Riverview, noting that long-term psychiatric care has been shown to isolate people from their friends and family. It also reinforces stigma and fosters dependency.

“I appreciate the concerns of the mayors and frustrations of the police, but the solution is not more hospital beds,” she said.

“We have to have a really serious conversation. How is it that people are getting into such a serious crisis that they end up in situations with police?”

Morrow also hopes the conversation to solve B.C.’s mental health crisis continues, and that it’s time now to hear from people who provide mental health services and the people who use them.

“It would be a shame if that momentum was lost. That kind of sustained conversation could lead to changes, but there has to be political will and support because it will need resources.”

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