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Crisis counsellors or crime-fighters?

Mental-health calls strain police resources; experts blame inadequate treatment options

At a time when the local police union is lobbying for more front-line officers and the methamphetamine crisis is ravaging Winnipeg streets, existing law-enforcement resources are being diverted into mental-health calls at an alarming rate.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/10/2018 (1152 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At a time when the local police union is lobbying for more front-line officers and the methamphetamine crisis is ravaging Winnipeg streets, existing law-enforcement resources are being diverted into mental-health calls at an alarming rate.

Winnipeg police were dispatched to 5,360 suicide threat calls in 2017 — an average of 14 per day.

That represents a 152 per cent increase over the number of suicide calls police dealt with in 2005, the furthest year back the Free Press has statistics for. It's also a 17 per cent jump from 2016.

Marion Cooper, Executive Director at the Canadian Mental Health Association

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Marion Cooper, Executive Director at the Canadian Mental Health Association

"We have a lot of people struggling here in Manitoba. The challenge, of course, is that mental-health services are very underfunded in this province," said Marion Cooper, Manitoba executive director for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"We need a mental-health system that’s robust and funded enough so that people can get help before things get so bad that the police need to get involved."

 

Suicide calls — which represent only a fraction of all mental-health-related calls — have been rising steadily over the past decade and show no signs of slowing down. In the first three months of this year, the Winnipeg Police Service responded to 1,267 suicide calls.

Between 2006 and 2016 there was a 99 per cent increase in all mental-health-related calls to the WPS call centre. To put that in context, over the same time period total calls to police increased by 35 per cent.

Data obtained by the Free Press through a freedom of information request shows that significant police resources were tapped for mental-health calls in 2017.

411 ON 911

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This is the final of a four-part series based on a Free Press data analysis of 275,670 instances in which Winnipeg Police Service officers were dispatched between Jan. 1 2017 and March 31, 2018.

Part 1: Officers are dispatched an average of 600 times a day; the Free Press finds out where they're headed and why

Part 2: There were just nine days in 2017 without reports of firearms sightings in Winnipeg

Part 3: When it comes to break and enters, downtown neighbourhoods hardest hit

The Free Press has analyzed a log of 275,670 police dispatches from Jan. 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, which included details such as event type, priority level, date, time and approximate location. That data was reinforced by statistics for mental-health-related calls the WPS released to the Free Press last year.

The picture painted by the data analysis is one of a police force that is having its resources increasingly stretched thin by mental-health-related calls.

In 2016, police spent an average of three hours tied up at each suicide threat call, according to WPS statistics. If that’s any indication of the amount of time police spent on such calls in 2017, the drain on resources is staggering.

At an average of three hours per incident, police would have spent roughly 16,080 hours – or a collective 670 days — responding to suicide-threat calls last year.

"When I first got on (the force), there were shifts where you spent your entire 10-hour shift sitting at the hospital. And sometimes that would be relieving a car. You would log in, relieve a car at the (Health Sciences Centre) and you'd be there for the entire day," said WPS spokesman Const. Jay Murray.

That's improved somewhat in recent years; Murray said assigning special constable status to some hospital security guards has helped matters.

Nonetheless, while police are willing to go wherever they're needed, most officers would rather be chasing criminals than responding to mental-health calls, he said.

"That's not what we signed up for," he said.

 

According to Stacey Cann, communications supervisor at the WPS call centre, suicide calls are only one facet of the mental-health challenges being thrown at law enforcement. She said a significant chunk of the calls that get labelled "disturbances" or "well-being checks" end up being people struggling with mental-health concerns.

Stacey Cann, Winnipeg Police Service  communications co-ordinator

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Stacey Cann, Winnipeg Police Service communications co-ordinator

Well-being checks and disturbances were among the most common events in which police were dispatched, coming in at 14,997 and 8,413, respectively, in 2017.

"It’s fair to say that a good portion of those calls are going to be mental-health-related," Cann said.

Police have made significant strides in recent years in improving how they respond to mental-health-related calls, Cooper said, but added that doesn't change the fact they aren't mental-health professionals or experts.

On top of tying up finite WPS resources, Cooper said a police response can potentially exacerbate the situation for people on the verge of suicide.

"It’s scary," she said. "No one wants the police showing up at their house. If you’re someone who may be feeling unsafe, paranoid or, say, experiencing symptoms of psychosis, then you’re already feeling really vulnerable.

"It can escalate things for sure. It can be very traumatic. Police don’t want to be adding to distress. They’re very good on these calls. The police force has really come a long way, but that doesn’t change the fact using them should be a last resort."

While the causes behind the spike in suicide calls remain unclear, Cooper said improving early-intervention options for people with with mental illnesses would be a good first step in trying to fix the problem.

"We don’t have parity between mental-health care and physical-health care in Manitoba," she said. "We don’t have funding levels that match our need.

"If someone was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer they would get treatment. When it comes to mental health, we don’t have a system that responds to Stage 1 or Stage 2 mental-health concerns. You shouldn’t have to wait until Stage 4 before you can get help."

— With files from Katie May


ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @rk_thorpe


graeme.bruce@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @grjbruce

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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