In almost every way, Claude Mathieu is a typical Calgarian, meaning he avoids trouble with the police at all costs.

But Mathieu is also a diagnosed schizophrenic and several years ago, he was in the steam room of a fitness centre when a woman accidentally sprayed water in his face. He tried to wrestle the hose from her hands, but he over powered her and she ended up falling into a glass door.

"It was kind of scary," he admits.

The police were called, a report was filed and even though the matter didn't go any further, minor cases like Mathieu's are increasingly bogging up the court system in Calgary.

Common problem, says judge

Calgary provincial court Judge Anne Brown says she sees a staggering number of people like Mathieu in her courtroom every day.


Judge Anne Brown says she sees a staggering number of people with mental illness and addiction problems in her courtroom every day. (CBC)

"I would say that the vast majority of the cases with which I deal on a daily basis involve some aspect of social disorder behaviour or mental illness."

Calgary does have a diversion court for people with mental illnesses, but Brown admits she sometimes feels frustrated that the system isn't set up to deal with individual cases.

"I think that the criminal justice system is definitely a blunt instrument for dealing with people whose problems are mainly health problems and not deliberate criminal intention."

Brown notes many of the people in her courtroom are there for petty, social disturbance type crimes.

"I have sometimes described it as dealing with cases that are not 'capital C' criminal."

"Certainly they may have committed crimes — petty crimes usually — against other members of society," Brown explains, "but they are themselves vulnerable people so that's the frustration I feel."

Police track 'social disorder' calls 

Of the 500,000 calls that police get every year in Calgary, between 60,000 and 70,000 are categorized as "social disorder calls." It's the closest the service comes to measuring calls that involve people with mental illness.

Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson says addressing the issue is a priority for the department.

"We know that probably 50 per cent of people that are in prisons and jails suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness."

Meanwhile, Mathieu continues his work as a volunteer with the Schizophrenia Society in Calgary.

Mathieu tears up as he speaks about a self destructive ex-girlfriend who he just couldn't help any longer. The fewer friends whose fate goes down that road, the better, he says.

"They need to be helped and nurtured, comforted," he said in a gentle voice, "and in some way almost held by the hand to realize there is a better world out there and it is not all gloom and doom."