Feature Story                                                                                                    Sunday, March 11, 2012

     

 

Chilliwack Police Swamped By Mental Health Calls

Will the RCMP's new Social Chronic Coordinator help?

Craig Hill/Voice photos

 

Police in Chilliwack are being overwhelmed by people with mental health issues who in many cases are brought to CGH.

 

man cowers alone for years in a shoebox-sized room. His long unkempt hair and scraggy beard gives him the appearance of a Robinson Crusoe. Around the door jamb are foot long gouge marks caked in blood from clawing.  Unfortunately this isn’t fiction.

 

In the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, mentally ill often fall through the cracks, forgotten about until it's too late and it’s no different in Chilliwack..

 

A residential building is only as good as it's manager. If the manager of a rooming house or hotel notices a resident’s poor condition and sees the state of their room, they can call the Public Heath Nurse who’ll meet the resident, and if necessary, schedule weekly checks

 

In the case of the forgotten man, the clerk had another option — the Strathcona Mental Health Team — a mobile unit consisting of a medical doctor, or trained professional and a pair of assistants. The team's response time varies, depending on the urgency of the situation and workload.

 

When the team arrives at the residence, they assess the person on the spot and can either detain them under the Mental Health Act and take them to the hospital psyche ward, or leave them.

 

In Chilliwack, where do people turn to and who do they call for help when dealing with a mentally ill person? Even though no crime has been committed and the person isn't "arrestable", they call the police.

 

Last Friday, a man walked into McDonald's Restaurant on Yale Rd., took all his clothes off in front of horrified diners then locked himself in the public washroom.

 

Every day in Chilliwack the RCMP respond to complaints about people with mental issues getting out of hand. In many of those instances, the person is picked up and then taken to Chilliwack General Hospital (CGH). The police are on a first name basis with troubled individuals, because they deal with them sometimes two or three times a day.

 

The Voice asked for but have not yet obtained stats regarding how many police man-hours are used dealing with mental health clients, but those figures are assumed to be significant due to the amount of calls the police field.

 

Mounties have their hands full already without having to take on the role of mental health professionals and assess the people themselves. It’s true that people with mental health issues don’t belong in jail, and being mentally ill isn’t a crime, but the onus is on the police to handle it.

 

The Voice learned two weeks ago that Chilliwack RCMP Cst. Valerie Conroy is the new "Social Chronic Coordinator" and we'll be talking with Conroy next week about what her duties will be while working in that capacity.

 

 

Drug habits lead people to dumpsters, like the woman above, in search of items they can swap or sell for drugs.

 

Last week, the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) released a position paper indicating an urgent need for provincial and federal governments to “work together to reduce the rising number of people with mental illnesses who are being unduly criminalized."

 

“Over the past decades an increasingly disproportionate number of people with mental illness have become embroiled with the criminal justice system—many for relatively minor offences," says Dr. Gary Chaimowitz in the release. “More and better coordinated resources as well as increased monitoring and research are needed to reduce the number of Canadians with mental illness in our jails.”

 

The CPA’s aim is to get people with mental illness into adequate treatment  before they reach the judicial system and that federal crime legislation is needed to ensure that those people are treated fairly.

 

They also want the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the government to create a task force to monitor prisons, hospitals and the community and research ways people with mental illnesses can avoid criminal charges and incarceration.

 

The CPA says that in the last 40 years, institutions have been closed and beds lost in psychiatric and general hospitals. Promised support hasn’t materialized and Chaimowitz says that some families have had to press charges against loved ones in order to get them into treatment.

 

"Unfortunately the price of this uncertain access is the criminalization of the individual," he says.

 

According to the Canadian Correctional Investigator's last annual report, 38 per cent of male federal offenders admitted to penitentiary needed psychiatric assessments and over 50 per cent of female offenders. This far exceeds the rate in general society.

 

"Correctional systems are not benign.  The suicide rate for incarcerated people is almost eight times that in the community and the homicide rate 14 times greater," says Dr. Chaimowitz.

 

In Victoria, the United Way has funded a program administered by Cool Aid and the Umbrella Society to train volunteers from a variety of agencies about the challenges and issues that people struggling with mental health and addictions face.

 

Is it time that local health authorities looked at having a mobile mental health unit in Chilliwack?

 

In an effort to find out the answer to that, The Voice posed the question to staff at the Fraser Valley Brain Injury Association (FVBIA).

 

Natasha Herrick and Esther Tremblay are case managers at FVBIA with extensive experience working closely with brain-injured people, and both agree that having a mobile team in Chilliwack would help.

 

Tremblay likes the idea of a mobile team, however she wonders who would be paying for it.

 

“A mobile unit is great idea however I don't know how the contract can be determined and who will pick up the tab for it,” she said. “If, financially speaking, the city covers it or Health Authority, then a specialized unit can be created and the service delivered to where it is needed.”

 

Ester Tremblay, on party day at Communitas.

 

Elliot thinks the RCMP need help dealing with mental health situations, “especially on-site” where the person is residing.

 

When dealing with police, mental health patients sometimes get scared and the problem can be exacerbated by the RCMP’s presence.

 

“I have seen both sides of the spectrum,” said Elliot. “In many cases individuals with mental health issues are often intimidated by authority figures, police in particular. These people are often the ones that tend to lash out or escalate and these individuals are also the ones that are often afraid of any kind of medical professional help.”

 

 “On the other side, I have seen mental health workers and counsellors have great success talking someone down from dangerous situations. The individuals that responded well to this scenario are the ones that feel the MH workers can relate and understand them. Something the police often can't.”

 

Carol Paetkau, Executive Director of the FVBIA says that some of the people they work with who have mental illnesses in tandem with acquired brain injuries.

 

According to Roy Thorpe-Dorward at Fraser Health Authority (FHA) Chilliwack has no mobile team, however there are other services that fill the void.

 

Thorpe-Dorward told The Voice in an e-mail that in January 2011, FHA entered into a partnership with the Chilliwack RCMP and Abbotsford Police Department in order to develop an effective response system for people with mental health issues in crisis situations.

 

“These partnerships improve the ability of both organizations to do early intervention with community members experiencing mental health or addictions issues so referrals can be made to appropriate services in the community instead of the first contact being hospital emergency departments.”

 

“These partnerships also strive to reduce the incidence of people who are suffering a mental health/addictions crisis being taken into custody by police if it is more appropriate for a referral to be made to a health care service,” said Thorpe-Dorward.

 

Surrey and Delta have similar agreements, which according to Thorpe-Dorward, have brought about more desired results for people in crisis situations, reducing the number of visits to emergency departments.

 

Also in 2011, FHA enhanced services including, lengthening the Psychiatric Liaison Nurse hours from 8 to 16 and there were a number of psychiatrists to the local roster.

 

In 2010, Riverstone Mobile Detox and Daytox program opened at CGH, Cedar Ridge Adult Specialized Mental Health Rehabilitation facility and a Rapid Access Psychiatric Clinic also threw open their doors.

 

The Rapid Access Clinic provides prompt access to short-term adult psychiatric consultation for intervention (assessment and treatment) to help clients manage issues such as depression and anxiety.

 

Telepsychiatry services can also be accessed for people in remote areas via videoconferencing.

 

If you know someone suffering from mental illness or depression you can suggest they get help at the Chilliwack Mental Health Office, 45470 Menholm Road, Chilliwack, B.C. V2P 1M2 Phone: 604-702-4860 Fax: 604-702-4861

 

For information online, visit here.

 

 

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