The caring hand of the law

Red Deer RCMP are showing insight with a progressive new approach in dealing with complaints involving those with mental health issues.

Red Deer RCMP are showing insight with a progressive new approach in dealing with complaints involving those with mental health issues.

Insp. Ray Noble, the new top cop at city RCMP detachment, announced last week a program that could benefit the community by reducing crime, cutting prison populations and offering help to people with mental health issues. In early December, the city detachment will embark on a pilot project that will see a psychiatric nurse team up with a specially-trained officer to find a better way to handle calls involving people with mental illnesses.

It’s a win-win situation.

Ultimately, the goal is to find alternatives, other than jail, to break the cycle of repeat offenders with mental illnesses. These offenders have become lost in our current justice system that offers little treatment and compassion. The possibility of rehabilitation is faltering and that means criminal behaviour is more likely to continue to occur.

Noble said at a town hall meeting on Thursday Inn that complaints to city detachment involving people with mental health issues have increased by 27 per cent in the past three years.

“It’s not going away unless we change the way we do business,” he said. “If it’s a health-related issue, we should be looking at a health-related solution.”

Upwards of 40 per cent of Canada’s prison population is comprised of inmates suffering serious mental disorders, says the Canadian Mental Health Association. And the numbers are growing rapidly.

Worse yet, almost 20 per cent of Canadian youths suffer mental disorders. They are offered little help in curbing their criminal behaviour.

Megan Longley, a Halifax legal aid lawyer, said the criminalization of the young people’s illnesses “forces us to watch these kids to cycle until they do enough damage to somebody to suddenly go to jail. What happens is that you criminalise health issues and we have absolutely zero services available in youth court. And as long as we keep using jail as a dumping ground for these poor kids, nothing is going to change.”

Ultimately, as these young people age, they become our future prison population.

The same applies to adult offenders, where little help is available behind bars. Worse yet, the federal government’s proposed Bill C-10, which is intended to get tough on crime, fails to address mental health issues. Part of the plan is more jails. But slamming the bars shut on the mentally ill is not the answer.

The best solution for now are community-based programs independent of the federal government’s get-tough measures. Red Deer’s police initiative shows promise in tackling mental-health related criminal behaviour at its root.

Under the proposal, which has been successful in other Alberta jurisdictions, city RCMP are forming a police and crisis team. A psychiatric nurse will join an RCMP officer to offer help to those in need.

A data base will be compiled identifying those with mental problems to help authorities determine the best approach to take when answering a 911 call. Red Deer’s team will spend a week training with Calgary police, who have a similar unit.

Noble said that once a team starts working in the community, it will identify the root of the problem and greatly reduce the risk of police having to use force. In addition, city officers will take new training to teach them about mental health first aid and how to identify various illnesses and the best way to respond.

Central Alberta’s medical community will play a vital role. The Primary Care Network, a group of 74 Red Deer and area physicians devoted to preventative medicine, will spend upwards of $70,000 for the psychiatric nurse during the 13-month pilot project. Dr. Betty Cowie said the network strives to fill the gaps it sees in medical care, and the pilot project is another step toward that goal.

If the medical community and police acknowledge there’s a problem in dealing with the mentally ill, why aren’t provincial and federal governments listening?

Until they see the light and start acting, community-based programs are the only alternative.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.