People with mental illness need help before cops are called, advocate says

Mark Gruchy, a mental health advocate and defence lawyer in St. John's, says a new report from Statistics Canada shows that people with mental illness need access to help before police are called in to respond in crisis situations.

Statistics Canada report shows arrests are more common when mental illness is involved

Mark Gruchy is a mental health advocate and defence lawyer in St. John's. (CBC)

A mental health advocate and defence lawyer in St. John's says a new report from Statistics Canada shows that people with mental illness need access to help before police are called in to respond in crisis situations.

The survey, titled "Mental health and contact with police in Canada," looked at police interaction with people with mental disorders. It collected data from people 15 years of age and older, living in the 10 provinces.

The report states that people with mental illness are four times more likely to be arrested than those without a mental disorder.

Mark Gruchy is the co-chair of the Community Coalition for Mental Health and the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

He says the numbers from the report are slightly skewed. Statistics Canada considered one in every 10 people to have a mental illness, but Gruchy says one in five is a more accurate number.

But, he says, the report does show that there needs to be change.

Gruchy says people with a mental illness often call police to help when they're in crisis, but it shouldn't have to reach that point.

"The solution, I think, is to bring about a state of affairs in our society where the police don't have to be — as they so commonly are — the frontline responders to mental health emergencies, and you do that by ensuring that people have access to services before things get that bad," he said.

Gruchy says conflicts can escalate when police try to detain a person under the mental health act.

"You may be seeing people who are desperate, who are looking for medical assistance, and who find themselves in a situation where police only really have two options: one is a brief de-escalation in encounter, and the other is a detention under the mental health act," he said.

"If you have a scenario where a person does not wish to be detained under the mental health act and was not anticipating this ... You could then see a situation unfold where someone may even briefly resist being detained under the mental health act, and that could produce an arrest."

Increased services needed

Gruchy says currently, when people find themselves in a crisis, they reach out, and may only have one place to call — and then the police have to do their best in that situation.

"Ideally, we would like people to be able to seek assistance for these problems before they're having the crisis, and they have to call the police for assistance. And you do that by increasing services in the community and de-stigmatizing the situation generally," he said.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary recently began training their officers in how to handle people with mental illness. 

Gruchy says this is a step in the right direction, but there also needs to be a change in the culture, so that people seek help before they have a crisis.

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