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Patchwork emergency mental health service could lead to more deaths: critics
VANCOUVER -- A service that pairs a mental health nurse with a police officer to do wellness checks could reduce the chance of such an encounter turning violent — but it’s only available in a patchwork of jurisdictions across B.C., a review by CTV News has found.
Even as mental health calls are rising dramatically, major Lower Mainland cities don’t have dedicated mental health teams. The care a patient gets can depend on what city they're in, and even what time or what day of the week they call for help.
Civic leaders in cities where some of the most high-profile wellness checks have gone wrong are calling for for dual teams to be rolled out as one solution to these calls, some which have turned fatal.
“We need more compassion, more understanding, more stepping back and trying to look at what we can do to help this person in need,” said Zeni Maartman, a Nanaimo city councillor. “It should be provincial. I’m not enthusiastic about patchwork.”
Nanaimo RCMP did not have a mental health nurse with them when they responded to a 911 call from the son of Shanna Blanchard in May. Blanchard had locked herself in the bathroom crying.
When police tried to apprehend her under the Mental Health Act, Blanchard — who was a firefighter and has herself responded to many similar calls — told them they didn’t have the grounds, which include having a mental illness or being a danger to herself or other people.
She says she stood up, and was punched so hard she lost a tooth.
Her home security video shows the officers hauling her out as she screams for help. She says they put her in a spit hood, which she said she managed to pull off so that she didn’t drown in the blood coming from her mouth.
“This is someone hurting. I was hurting. I needed community support. I needed mental health support. I certainly didn’t need the RCMP,” Blanchard told CTV News.
She said she thought she was going to die. Six wellness checks have resulted in deaths in the last three months across Canada. A report to B.C.’s coroner last year says of all the deaths caused by police in a five year period, more than two-thirds have been related to mental health calls.
An RCMP spokesperson told CTV News that a Nanaimo mental health team is slated for launch in 2021. But it would be one of only a handful of such teams that exist in the province.
In Kelowna, nursing student Mona Wang is suing the Kelowna RCMP after a video obtained as evidence in a court proceeding showed an RCMP constable dragging her through the hallway and then stepping on her head.
That call happened around 5 p.m. on a Monday in January; Kelowna’s mental health team, know as PACT, is only staffed Tuesday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Kelowna’s city council asked to double that service in 2018; the Interior Health Authority has not told CTV News whether it will follow through on that request.
In Prince George, Car 60 operates nine hours each day.
In the Lower Mainland, Vancouver’s Car 87 operates 21 hours a day, seven days a week — the highest of any police force surveyed by CTV News.
Richmond has Car 80, which started in October 2019 and operates 12 hours a day. Surrey operates Car 67, which also operates 12 hours a day. Of the 7,665 mental health calls in Surrey last year, Car 67 went to about 900, a spokesperson said.
But large cities in the Lower Mainland, including Burnaby and North Vancouver, don’t have such a service, an RCMP spokesperson said.
That’s the case even as mental health calls are increasing sharply. The Vancouver Police Department recorded 4,836 cases where police were called to assist mental health cases in 2019 — that’s more than double the 2,276 cases in 2010.
The provincial government has promised to include mental health response as part of its review of the Police Act, which has been sparked by widespread protests about racism in policing.
Blanchard said on many calls, there’s no reason to involve the police at all. She said some kind of specialized emergency nurse system would be fine if there’s no weapon or suicide risk.
“I have to speak out,” Blanchard told CTV News. “I have to. If what I say today or tomorrow helps get Mona and other people support or additional exposure, if this helps shed light on the way wellness checks are performed in B.C. or Canada, then I know I have to come forward.”