December 14, 2018

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Mental health services require funding boost

Editorial

Want proof that more staff is needed on the front lines of mental health services? Ask the people who are backfilling the role of mental health workers even though their badges say Winnipeg Police Service.

Police were dispatched to 5,360 suicide threats in 2017, an average of 14 per day, according to data compiled by the Free Press for a special report called “The 411 on 911.” To be clear, those calls only include suicide threats, not the wide range of other mental-illness incidents to which police are called.

The revelation that threats of suicide command such a large share of police resources — each call takes an average of three hours for the team of officers dispatched — is alarming for several reasons.

It’s a large drain on police to be the go-to resource for incidents that haven’t been a crime in Canada since 1972, when Parliament repealed the offence of attempting suicide from the Criminal Code.

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Want proof that more staff is needed on the front lines of mental health services? Ask the people who are backfilling the role of mental health workers even though their badges say Winnipeg Police Service.

Police were dispatched to 5,360 suicide threats in 2017, an average of 14 per day, according to data compiled by the Free Press for a special report called "The 411 on 911." To be clear, those calls only include suicide threats, not the wide range of other mental-illness incidents to which police are called.

The revelation that threats of suicide command such a large share of police resources — each call takes an average of three hours for the team of officers dispatched — is alarming for several reasons.

It’s a large drain on police to be the go-to resource for incidents that haven’t been a crime in Canada since 1972, when Parliament repealed the offence of attempting suicide from the Criminal Code.

It’s understandable that police are needed in some such calls, such as when bystanders are endangered by a suicidal person. This includes the growing number of people under the influence of methamphetamine.

 

But many of the common reasons for attempting suicide — financial difficulties, marriage breakdown, lack of social support, alcoholism — are not matters for police, whose time is better spent investigating crimes.

In some instances, police can actually worsen the situation, according to a mental health professional interviewed by the Free Press. For example, when people suffer from paranoia or psychosis, the arrival of armed police officers can actually heighten agitation.

Behind the misdirection of police resources is the unfortunate reality that mental health problems are much larger than what can be handled under the resources allocated in Manitoba for mental health treatment.

One reason police are so often sent to threats of suicide is that professionals with extensive training in mental health and suicide prevention are not immediately available for emergency calls 14 times a day.

It comes down to money. The $500 million that Manitoba spends annually on mental health and addictions is about 5.1 per cent of total health-care funding, below the national average for provinces of about 7.2 per cent. Making up the difference of two per cent — call it the two per cent solution — would be a good start toward bolstering mental health services.

It’s encouraging that the current provincial government recently opened five Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinics, but there is an urgent need for community-based mental health services, particularly those designed for low-income people and Indigenous people who are victims of intergenerational trauma. The roster of required services includes counsellors, psychologists, social workers and housing for people with serious mental illnesses.

If this wish list seems impossibly expensive, it’s important to recognize the benefits. Some forms of mental illness, if untreated, cause great damage to the patient, the patient’s family and the community. Early intervention offers patients treatment and tactics to deal with their invisible wounds before their unwell minds seize on the ultimate act of desperation.

Manitoba should fund the mental health professionals who can help people in crisis keep it together. It’s better than waiting until someone falls apart and then calling police.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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