Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mental-health crisis claims another victim

Shooting scene underscores society's failure

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Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis warned more than a year ago his officers were neither trained nor predisposed to perform the job of mental-health workers and said he was working with health officials to create a more comprehensive emergency protocol that ensured when a crisis did develop, there would be a multidisciplinary response.

SARAH TAYLOR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis warned more than a year ago his officers were neither trained nor predisposed to perform the job of mental-health workers and said he was working with health officials to create a more comprehensive emergency protocol that ensured when a crisis did develop, there would be a multidisciplinary response. Photo Store

A true definition of insanity, it has often been said, is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.

In that context, the police shooting last week that resulted in the death of a Winnipeg man and the subsequent suppression of all information about how police ended up using their weapons is a clear manifestation of insanity.

What we do know is Andrew Baryluk was a deeply troubled man who was either denied or unwilling to accept help. We know he was destined to lose the right to live in the only house he had ever known. We are also now aware he was in poor health and profoundly estranged from both his family and society in general.

His family members, also aging and facing financial challenges, wanted to sell the home where Baryluk resided. With someone strongly attached to that home, and apparently emotionally volatile at the best of times, the situation seemed destined for tragedy.

On eviction day, Baryluk barricaded himself in the home and cautioned sheriff's deputies he had a firearm. Over the subsequent hours, police made contact with Baryluk but were ultimately unable to convince him to surrender.

The police will be subject to harsh scrutiny for their handling of the event. Despite their best efforts to suppress exactly what happened, it will all come out: their decision to prevent family from speaking to Baryluk; their decision to storm the house; the painful decision to return fire.

The family, as well, will be subject to discomforting scrutiny of the legal battles sparked by Baryluk's desire to remain in the home and their decision not to assume more legal control over Baryluk's life.

In the final analysis, however, this is a failure by society to -- once again -- effectively intervene with someone in a mental-health crisis.

No one knows the correct pathology to describe Baryluk's mental state. We do know he was distressed, unable to resolve the shock of having to leave his home. There is every reason to believe many of the people in his life, including family and social-service agencies, were aware he was vulnerable.

How is it that nothing was done?

Although we hardly needed another example, Baryluk's story is more proof we are bad at dealing with mental health. We simply don't know what to do when someone's mind is unstable. And when that person reaches a crisis stage, we don't know how to respond. And even those people who do know how to respond know there aren't enough resources for the people who need help.

Ironically, the police are probably most aware of this tragic shortcoming in society.

Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis warned more than a year ago his officers were neither trained nor predisposed to perform the job of mental-health workers.

Last year, Clunis said he was working with health officials to create a more comprehensive emergency protocol that ensured when a crisis did develop, there would be a multidisciplinary response.

Mental-health workers would be involved to deal with mental-health issues. Social workers would be called when familial dysfunction was at the heart of a dispute. And police would be left to do what they normally do best -- keep the peace until it can no longer be kept and then restrain the people who author the mayhem.

Did that happen in the Baryluk standoff? To date, police will not reveal details about the training of the negotiators or police at the scene, or whether other professionals with mental-health or social-work expertise were consulted or allowed to speak to Baryluk.

We can deduce, however, part of this tragedy was due to the fact there was not enough mental-health expertise at the scene. We can deduce that because, in general, there are not enough mental-health resources to go around at the best of times.

Clunis's proposal for a multidisciplinary approach to crisis response is balanced and intelligent. It is doomed to fail, however, because we do not provide enough resources to open the beds, hire the counsellors and employ the professionals necessary to deal with the magnitude of the problem.

This was part of the narrative last month in Ontario, when former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci released a detailed report into the 2013 police shooting of an 18-year-old suffering from a mental disorder. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree murder.

In his report, Iacobucci recommended police upgrade their mental-health training and adopt a "zero-death" policy that seeks at all times to protect both the subject of a crisis and all those who respond to it.

Clunis is right. Iacobucci is right. We need a new approach, with more resources and a different mindset that commits all of us, when confronted with a mental-health crisis, to use compassion and understanding in the place of fear and loathing.

Or we could just go on pretending mental illness is not a real problem. That it doesn't require a massive public investment in facilities and trained professionals. That we do not need to instil a deeper empathy for mental illness in our justice system in particular, and society in general.

We could do that. But given recent events, that would be insane.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

 

How should police deal with the mentally ill? Join the conversation below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2014 A11

History

Updated on Tuesday, August 5, 2014 at 7:01 AM CDT: adds photo from standoff on stella

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