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Throughout time, there has been great stigma when it comes to mental health and discussing its presence. Millions of Canadians live with mental illnesses everyday. Around 1 in 5 Canadians will face a mental illness sometime during the course of their life (Smetanin, Stiff, Briante, Adair, Ahmad, and Khan, 2011). In Canada, the stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly coming to an end. While this is true within greater society, it is not true within policing. There is still a great gap between police officers and the community of persons with mental illnesses. In the advanced democratic country of Canada, training and awareness of mental illnesses must continue to take place to bridge the gap between police officers and persons with mental illnesses.
Each year, police officers respond to millions of calls for help. They range from very minor issues such as a broken window, all the way to a life threatening situation. Many calls police officers receive are for mentally ill persons. While there is stigma around these calls as being dangerous due to the unpredictable nature to persons with mental illnesses, police officers should attend to the call without fear or anxiety. With an increase in persons having mental illnesses comes an increase in police officers interacting with persons with mental illness. Negative outcomes of interactions between police officers and persons with mental illnesses almost always leads to new recommendations when interacting with person with mental illnesses. These recommendations always come down to training and programs for police officers.
The most well known program, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), is shown to have an effect on improving outcomes of interactions between police officers and persons with mental illnesses (Cotton and Coleman, 2010). CIT pairs police officers and mental health providers together when serving mentally ill persons within the community. This ensures that certain precautions are taken when responding to calls involving mentally ill persons as they have different needs than their non mentally ill counterpart. While CIT is beneficial for mentally ill persons, support for CIT has also been shown by police officers. Mental health related calls can be quite troublesome for police officers. Surveys have shown that many police officers feel they are under trained for these calls as they are quite unpredictable which can cause them to further escalate the situation (Wells and Schaefer, 2006; Ruiz and Miller 2004). CIT is beneficial for police officers as it helps them interact with mentally ill patients in a more safe and secure way.
While first responders receive mental health training, police officers are some of the least trained when it comes to mental health. When there is an emergency situation, sometimes a police officer may get there quicker than a paramedic. If police officers were to receive the same extensive mental health training that paramedics receive, they would be better equipped and trained to help the mentally ill person. This would also take some of the burden off of paramedics when responding to calls of mentally ill persons.
Many police forces within Canada have implemented beneficial training plans when it comes to police officers responding to calls for mentally ill persons. The Ontario Police College uses a training guide for new police officers throughout their police training. This helpful guide is also used by hospitals, psychiatric, mental health workers, mental health consumer organizations, and correctional workers (Coleman and Cotton, 2010). Another great initiative in Canada is the Lanark County LEAD Team. The mental health/police model is made up of groups of officers from the OPP detachments in Ontario towns like Smith Falls, Perth, Renfrew County, Lanark County, and Leed and Grenville. These officers do training in small groups where they learn about mental illnesses including symptoms, risk assessments, behaviors, recognition of persons with mental illnesses as well as de-escalation strategies (Cotton and Coleman, 2010). This is done so that officers acknowledge and understand that mental illnesses is a disorder and not an intentional crime. The officers then take this knowledge back to their town’s OPP detachment and pass on the knowledge to their fellow officers and supervisors (Cotton and Coleman, 2010). These initiatives done in Ontario show how police forces are motivated to help the mentally ill and not punish them for their disorders.
In a time where there are many persons with mental illnesses incarcerated for their actions rather than treated, programs for police officers to interact with the mentally ill are needed more than ever. In the United States, there are an estimated 10-15% of jail inmates and 25% of prison inmates with serious mental illnesses (Fuller, Sinclair, Geller, Quanbeck, & Snook, 2016). People with serious mental illnesses have no place in jail or prison, but rather within an institution or psychiatric centre is more beneficial to their health. The institualization of incarceration within the United States is a much more severe problem compared to Canada but Canada faces the same issues.
The dangers around incarceration and punishment of the mentally ill can be highlighted by looking at the death by suicide of 19 year-old Ashley Smith. Smith was a young girl in Ontario who was incarcerated in youth detention centres for mild crimes such as trespassing, causing disturbances, and throwing crab apples at the mailman. Smith had behavior problems which led to her school suspension and further incarceration at a federal institution, Nova Institution for Women. Smith was diagnosed with ADHD, learning disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. While at Grand Valley institution for Women, Smith tried to commit suicide multiple times and continued to show self harming behavior, she was put on suicide watch. She had also requested to be transferred to a psychiatric centre and she was put on a wait list. Smith tried again to commit suicide by means of hanging and she died. While witnessing her death through video surveillance, guards did not intervene for almost an hour and it was quite some time before they went in to check on her (“Timeline: The life & death”, 2010). This case study highlights not only the dangers of incarceration of the mentally ill, but also the very first interactions between the mentally ill and police officers. The main goal should not be punishment but rather rehabilitation. At the time of the interaction between the mentally ill and a police officer, it must be insured that the mentally ill person receives the treatment they need before any formal punishment is given.
While the stigma is slowly diminishing through initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk and other initiatives through the Mental Health Commission of Canada, there is still stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Through surveys done, many police officers feel that mental health calls are time consuming and take away time from fighting crime (Watson and Fulambarker, 2012). This attitude towards the mentally ill by police officers needs to be eliminated so there is no barrier or stigma when encountering and attending calls from the mentally ill. This can be done through awareness of mental illnesses by police officers. Awareness is done through training and community initiatives surrounding mental illnesses. Collecting donations for mental health, speaking about mental health, and communicating with communities about mental health are all ways to bridge the gap between police officers and persons with mental illnesses. It is also a way for police officers to become aware of the mental illnesses they have due to the nature of their job. A study in Canada looked at PTSD following a work related traumatic event for police officers. This study found that 12% of officers were clinically or partially diagnosed with PTSD following the traumatic event. (Marchand, 2015). These traumatic events included; shootings, riots, family incidents with child deaths, and car chases. By becoming aware of their own mental illnesses, police officers can have a better understanding of the mental illnesses citizens face.
As stigma surrounding mental health is slowly coming to an end, police officers are showing interest in being a part of this change. Although, there is still a great gap between police officers and the community of persons with mental illnesses. In the advanced democratic country of Canada, training and awareness of mental illnesses must continue to take place to bridge the gap between police officers and persons with mental illnesses. This will take place through programs like CIT, training by police forces and police colleges about mental illnesses, engagement with the community, keeping mentally ill persons out of jails and prisons, and addressing the mental illnesses police officers have due to the nature of their job. While it will not happen overnight, these changes will help facilitate the necessary bridging of both the police force and persons with mental illnesses in Canada.
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