By Stacy Ashton, Executive Director
On Tuesday, June 29, 2021 I presented to the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act in British Columbia. This invitation was extended to the Crisis Centre of BC as a result of our submission to the Committee in April.
The presenters on the panel included:
- Stacy Ashton, Crisis Centre of BC
- Dyan Dunsmoor-Farley, Gabriola Health and Wellness Collaborative
- Kendra Milne, Health Justice
- Michael Sandler, Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC
The Centre is committed to addressing the challenges presented by legal, funding, and policy frameworks of our emergency response, policing, and health and mental health systems.
Our experience handling calls from people in crisis shows that individuals experiencing mental health crisis can be de-escalated safely in community, and that integration of police and community-based crisis services has room for improvement.
We successfully handle 98% of calls by providing emotional support and safety planning involving the caller’s natural and community supports. The remaining 2% of our calls require in-person intervention. Currently, our only option for in-person intervention is to call 911.
In June, we emailed 10,000 of our donors and newsletter recipients and asked them to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences of mental health crisis intervention. Our survey focused on three open-ended questions:
- Have you ever had an interaction with emergency responders during a mental health crisis? What was that experience like?
- Have you had friends or family members experienced interactions with emergency responders during a mental health crisis? What was that experience like?
- What role do you think police should play in mental health crisis response?
The survey email was opened by 46% of our donors and 22% of our newsletter recipients, and 71 individuals completed the survey.
Thank you to everyone who responded.
Our 71 respondents described 88 separate incidents of emergency responders involved in mental health crisis response. Emergency responders referenced included:
- 53 interactions with police
- 22 interactions with emergency departments/hospitals
- 15 interactions with crisis lines
- 4 interactions with paramedics
- 2 interactions with Ministry of Child & Family Development staff
- 1 interaction with a drug treatment centre
- 1 interaction with the 811 Nurses Line
- 1 interaction with firefighters
Most incidents involved more than one emergency responder.
We coded 99 descriptions of interactions with emergency responders into three broad categories: negative, mixed, and positive. Overall, respondents described 65 of 99 interactions negatively (65%);13% mixed, and 21% positive.
Respondents described positive interactions with police as friendly, supportive, compassionate, patient, calm, neutral, and professional.
The words “traumatizing” and “scary” appeared regularly in descriptions of negative interactions with police during a mental health crisis. Respondents identified a number of things that made an interaction with police more frightening:
- Uniformed police officers
- Armed police officers
- Hearing sirens, especially if a silent approach was requested
- Rapid move to handcuffing
- Police officers who raised their voices, gave orders, and/or seemed impatient
- Being informed police are required by policy to handcuff during transport to hospital, even if the person being apprehended was non-violent and consenting to go to hospital
Other respondents described feeling stigmatized or judged if they or their family member or friend had previous suicide attempts, or were dealing with addictions. Respondents who were confronted and handcuffed in front of roommates, colleagues, or bystanders described feeling embarrassed.
A third area of negative interaction with police were cases where police brought persons in crisis to hospital, only for hospital staff to determine the crisis did not warrant hospitalization, and the individual would be released. In some cases, people described being released without any way to get home, having been taken under duress with no time to get a jacket or their wallet, and without return transport. Depending on the level of emotional distress, a person in crisis could find themselves taken to hospital and released many times over: a revolving door.
The full summary of responses is available online to read.
This survey is an initial exploration of the experiences and opinions of British Columbians related to building a robust “least restrictive, lowest cost” model of crisis care designed to shift our reliance on police for emergency mental health response.
Future surveys will reach out to individuals with lived experiences of mental health crises, especially those with marginalized viewpoints.
Crisis may take us by surprise, but systems change shouldn’t. It’s the outcome of hard work and persistence. We will keep proving that change is possible – if not inevitable – in the coming months and years.
I continue to want to hear your stories. Do reach out to me if you would like to chat further about this work.
Thank you for your support!
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call:
- Vancouver Coastal Regional Distress Line: 604-872-3311
- Anywhere in BC 1-800-SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433
- Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789
- Online Chat Service for Youth: www.YouthInBC.com (Noon to 1am)
- Online Chat Service for Adults: www.CrisisCentreChat.ca (Noon to 1am)