Feature Story  

                                                                                                                                                     

Thursday, June 4, 2015       

 

Saving Crystal

Managing the unmanageable: Blue Ribbon Report on Crime Reduction falls short on mental health

Staff/Voice photos

 

Crystal Muenier, and others like her, need immediate help, not jail. Below, she's shows off an infectious smile Monday.

 

ou can spot the raw underbelly of Chilliwack coming a block away. Bedraggled. Wandering aimlessly.

 

When it comes to the current crime wave sweeping across Chilliwack, there are no bigger prolific offenders than Crystal Muenier. She's the poster girl for prolifics. According to court documents, she's been arrested, charged and released 42 times since 2009. Before that, she had problems in Surrey.

 

But in Muenier's case, it's a trifecta of mental illness, drugs and plenty of probation breaches that keep her cycling in and out of jail. Each time she falls through cracks, she lands right back in the RCMP's lap. 

 

She's a tragedy waiting to happen. Police caught up with her early Monday morning meandering down Yale Road panty-less, with a hiked up skirt  Later that afternoon, they found her in the old Empress Hotel parking lot wigging out.

Ironically, the police who arrest her are all she's got. They're her front-line workers and get her off the street to safety when she's like this. But, the RCMP have said many times jails are no place for people with mental illnesses. 

 

Similar scenes involving mental health unfold multiple times a day in Chilliwack. All police can do is watch and make sure the person doesn't hurt themselves.

 

Muenier wasn't in breach Monday, therefore couldn't be arrested. So, Emergency Hospital Services are called and she's taken to the psyche ward at Chilliwack General. A short time later, it's all set in motion again when she's released to wander prone until re-arrested.

Police in BC say that 1-in-5 calls are mental health-related. When having to assess people with significant functional impairments, cops have no choice but to act as medical professionals and apprehend them under the Mental Health Act.

 

The situation downtown is so familiar to cops, they're on a first-name basis with Muenier and the other prolific offenders.

Kim Lloyd, who runs the Pacific Community Resources Society needle exchange program watches the events unfold from her step-side van.

"Look, they aren't arresting her," declares Lloyd, who deals with Muenier occasionally. "They could take her to CGH."



The police are in a pitched battle. The problem is an ineffective treatment system where individuals in need of care are stuck in an endless loop when they're released back into the community to fend for themselves with little, or no support.

 

What ends up happening is the community blames the police, who look to the courts. Evidently, the courts back the police in that jail isnt the right place for the mentally ill.


On Tuesday, City council unanimously threw their support behind the BC Government's biblical "Blue Ribbon Report on Crime Reduction" (BRRCR).

The BRRCR which focuses primarily on crime and prolific offenders, is nebulous about mental health strategies or to make recommendations other than a couple of pages telling us governments need to be more involved. It was tabled last December. Chilliwack was not part of the consultation process, with the exception of Restorative Justice and Youth Advocacy Association.

Councillor Sue Attrill gave the BRRCR a ringing endorsement.

"This is a big issue for us. RCMP resources are repeatedly drained out. We'd like to see something done to reduce crime in our community," stated Attrill at the meeting Tuesday. "It is our goal to continue to work in partnership with the RCMP and senior levels of government, and have had discussions with MLA Darryl Plecas, who has been very supportive and we can't thank them enough for their involvement, and our local MLA's about crime reduction. Going forward, I see this as an opportunity to support the suggested changes which the province's Blue Ribbon Report Crime Reduction and I hope that this plan, will indeed drive the crime rate lower in both our city and the province of British Columbia."
 

Police watch over Crystal Muenier during a mental illness episode in the Empress parking lot Monday.


Attrill was correct in stating the resources police need to manage mental health in the city is hefty.

For example, on Wednesday, several officers, a K9 unit and Air One chopper were all used to locate a young suicidal Chilliwack woman allegedly carrying an xacto blade. Once apprehended, reports were she was banging her head on the bars in the back of the cruiser on the way to the hospital.
 

The panel, who put the BRRCR together, recommends the Province "enhance the treatment options available in the community, including those in custody; increase access to Aboriginal-led treatment programs for Aboriginal offenders and prioritize funding for programs focused on sustainable long-term recovery".

 

Even though police do an exemplary job dealing with mentally distressed people, the BRRCR notes "in a recent House of Commons report on the economics of policing, front-line police officers are not the best equipped to deal with mental health problems."

The panel also recommended that "governments constitutionally responsible for health care work in collaboration with local police forces, achieve better practices when dealing with persons having mental health problems and illnesses, outside of the police being the first and only line of response".

Mayor Sharon Gatez commended Abbotsford MLA Plecas and his staff for their work in putting the 90-page BRRCR booklet together, and for looking at the cause and effect and impact crime has on the communities.

He makes the point very well that its connected a lot to mental illness (and crime), that sometimes they cannot be separated anymore, said Gaetz. Of the people who are doing most of the crime, few people are doing 80 per cent of the crime. In fact, the numbers are much higher because they usually dont get caught, theyre seasoned prolific offenders.

Councillor Waddington touched on the heart of the matter by saying that its a problem for upper levels of government, but failed to point a finger, for instance, at the Ministry of Health.

Councillor Lum thanked Attrill for her past work on the Public Safety Committee and said hed be with her at the UBCM in support of the resolution on the report.

One thing that would help is a unit similar to the downtown eastside's Strathcona Mental Health Team. Most other large communities in the Fraser Valley have Assertive Community Treatment Teams (ACT) that provide outreach services to adults with persistent mental illness. Surrey has one. Abbotsford has one.

Michael Marchbank, Fraser Health President and CEO, told The Voice after a Fraser Valley Regional District board meeting back in February, that there weren't plans to get an ACT Team in Chilliwack.

Hiring more officers isn't necessarily the antidote either. But due to the number of times police respond to mental illness calls, having a street team in Chilliwack like ACT, would be the equivalent of hiring more police officers.

 

The difference is the outreach and the follow-up teams provide. But due to their high cost, only 15 such teams are currently deployed in BC, when approximately 60 would be required to cover most areas of the province.

 

There could be more community-based policing in Chilliwack. But in order to do that, you need cops who are established and trusted in the community. For instance, they can't learn about what's going on in the north side if they live isolated from it on Promontory.


A man is arrested under the Mental Health Act at the Alano Club last Friday.


Public Health Nurses are everywhere on the Downtown East Side of Vancouver which is Coastal Health's jurisdiction.

 

Tasleem Juma, Fraser Health spokesperson, said there was help in clinics but limited outreach.

"Outreach Services to clients with a mental illness or substance use issues are not provided by a Public Health Nurse, but rather clinicians within our mental health and substance use system," she said in an e-mail Wednesday. "In addition, we have a contract with Salvation Army which provides a part-time Homelessness Outreach Worker".

"The Community Mental Health Centre provides mental health services which are either office-based or outreach in nature dependent upon client situation and need. Riverstone Home and a Mobile Detox program has an outreach Addictions Worker that provides outreach for substance use services full-time to residents of Chilliwack," wrote Juma.

 

"We have a very good working relationship with the Chilliwack RCMP and we have a Full Time Mental Health Police Liaison that coordinates services and response with the local RCMP detachment. The system for responding to individuals with mental health issues and who are charged with offences, is the Forensic System, not Fraser Health's mental health and substance use program. The court is the access point to the Forensic system after a judge orders a forensic assessment of the individual," she said.

UFV professor Blakeborough said in his multi-dimensional Housing First Report to city hall, that people in other areas are finding out homeless services are better in Chilliwack. The whole support system is stretched so thin it's ready to snap as mentally ill street people push their way up the valley.

On Tuesday, Chilliwack police were checking out a woman charged with break and enter who is waiting to go to court in Langley.

 

There are alternatives to consider such as Rainier School in Washington, which is a small town with homes where developmentally disabled people live. Similar places and programs can be modified for mentally ill in Canada.

 

Jim Green came to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and set up the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA). He brought his big American dreams with him and managed to change the social landscape of Canada's poorest postal code, eventually creating the Portland Hotel for people like Muenier. It was also where John Turvey and Barb Daniels set up the first needle exchange.

A mental health consultation process is taking place in Europe, called the "Tell us" initiative.

"It's about being involved instead of being affected: The positive response to the initiative Tell us! highlights that many patients and relatives are eager to share their experience and questions regarding mental illnesses. The platform www.redensiemit.org provides an opportunity to make suggestions concerning which unsolved problems and research questions in terms of prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses should be addressed. For the first time, citizens are able to actively shape science. Contributing to this unique initiative in Europe is still possible until July 6th."

"The Ludwig Boltzmann Gesellschaft has started the initiative Tell us! in spring 2015 in order to enable interested parties and affected people to take part in the research process by generating research questions. The focus of the initiative lies on mental health and it is part of an ongoing project dealing with Open Innovation in Science. Opening up the innovation process at pre-determined points in time allows for outside knowledge to improve research."

In the end, it all comes down to funding. It's going to take as much money as governments can throw at it.
 

The Blue Ribbon Report on Crime Reduction's next stop is the UBCM in September.

 

But Muenier could be dead by then.


 

Below, a release that came out on Wednesday from the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"On the heels of the Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) successful 64th annual Mental Health Week campaign where Canadians were encouraged to take action to reduce discrimination and stigma and demand more and better access to mental health programs and services from their elected representatives CMHA is releasing key results from a Nanos Research poll on mental health funding." 


"In most provinces, funding has not kept pace with the demand for services," says Peter Coleridge, National CEO of CMHA. "In some provinces, there have actually been reductions in funding."


According to the poll, commissioned by CMHA, Canadians strongly believe that mental health must be a funding priority for governments. The survey found that:

94% of Canadians said that mental health conditions should receive the same or higher funding priority compared to physical health conditions and
90% of respondents support the creation of a dedicated mental health transition fund

"Canadians want better access to high quality mental health services and this is not surprising," says Coleridge. "According to a 2012 Statistics Canada health survey, one in six Canadians aged 15 or older reported having had a need for mental health care."


"While it's important to reduce discrimination and the stigma around mental illness, it is equally important to continue to call on governments to ensure appropriate levels of funding for mental health services so that the help is there when people need it," adds Coleridge.


CMHA's position is consistent with three key recommendations in the Mental Health Strategy for Canada (2012), which calls on all governments in Canada to:

increase their proportion of health spending that is devoted to mental health from 7% to 9% over 10 years;
increase the proportion of social spending that is devoted to mental health by 2 percentage points from current levels; and
identify current mental health spending that should be reallocated to improve efficiency and achieve better mental health outcomes.

As the federal Standing Committee on Health undertakes a new study on mental health in Canada, CMHA strongly believes that we do not need more studies to provide a direction for mental health transformation in Canada.  CMHA also looks forward to learning more about the Mental Health Commission of Canada's new mandate and proposed Mental Health Action Plan.


"Canada has an evidence-based mental health strategy and all provinces have mental health and addiction strategies or plans. This has led to progress in transforming programs and services across Canada as health and social service providers better align efforts to keep people healthy and collaborate more effectively at various points of care within limited resources. However, many Canadians continue to experience barriers to receiving timely, quality mental health services. The transformation of mental health services requires governments at all levels to fund the implementation of various strategies and plans," says Coleridge.


In line with recommendations first made in a 2007 Senate report to establish a mental health transition fund for Canada, CMHA is reminding elected representatives and public officials across the country about the need for increased investments in mental health, mental illness and addiction. CMHA, an active member of the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH), will continue to work with all community partners and Canadians to further these discussions.


For more information on how to GET LOUD for increased mental health funding, go to CMHA's Mental Health Week website at www.mentalhealthweek.ca 


Below is a list of mental health services available in Chilliwack courtesy of Fraser Health Authority.


 

 

 

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