Statement by Jonny Morris, CEO, CMHA BC Division, June 24, 2020
CMHA BC is deeply saddened and concerned about recent tragic incidents across Canada, where individuals who were reportedly in the midst of a mental health emergency, died during an encounter with police. We send our care and condolences to the loved ones and community members forever changed by these lives lost.
We also recognize that racism, systemic injustice, the ongoing effects of colonization, and inequitable access to health resources are all profound risk factors in both the lead up to and during a crisis interaction.
The other profound risk factor for tragic outcomes such as these is decades of systemic under-funding for mental health and substance use care, to the point where police have become the de facto mental health, substance use, and social care system. When police respond to a mental health or substance use emergency, knowingly or unknowingly, trained or untrained, the stakes are high. And all too often, these high stakes result in a loss of life, with devastating consequences for everyone involved.
CMHA BC and our community partners have testified at inquiries, drafted policy reports, commented publicly, and worked with police to respond to the moral imperative to improve crisis care. We need a fundamental shift so that police are no longer the default response for a “wellness check” or a mental health or substance use emergency.
We know that effective crisis care is possible and here are some examples and recommendations for improving emergency crisis response:
- Listen to the experiences of people living with mental health and substance use problems about their encounters with police.
- Invest in community-based mental health sector crisis responses like CAHOOTS.
- Learn from Sweden’s pioneering successes and deploy mental health ambulances.
- Thoroughly evaluate the effectiveness of the Province’s mandatory crisis intervention and de-escalation training for all serving police officers.
- Drive better practice in crisis care and joint planning through a provincial agreement among services and agencies in the care and support of people in crisis.
- Compel police forces to develop and implement rigorous mental health strategies that mandate a proportional response when interacting with a person experiencing a mental health emergency.
A mental health emergency warrants an emergency health response. Transformative investments in our mental health and substance use system and moving away from police as the de facto response to care will all help reduce the likelihood of more devastating and tragic loss of life.