Police on P.E.I. fielding hundreds of mental health calls — and it’s only getting worse

Mental health calls to police in Charlottetown and Summerside have soared on P.E.I. in recent years and could reach all-time highs this year, according to a CBC News investigation.

“There is a certain desperation amongst our population that are affected by health, and that makes them do desperate things to get the treatment they need, and that’s truly unfortunate,” said Brad MacConnell, Charlottetown’s deputy police chief.

Charlottetown police handled 741 mental health calls in 2019, up from 453 in 2017. It’s a trend that is “only getting worse,” he said.

Those calls include suicide threats and attempts, and any calls involving those struggling with their mental health who may be at risk of harming others, and/or where the individual may need to be hospitalized.

Calls about suicide have almost doubled, rising from 130 in 2017 to 246 in 2019.

Mental health calls and wellness checks put a huge amount of pressure on officers, says Staff Sgt. Kevin Baillie of the RCMP. (John Robertson/CBC)

In Summerside calls have increased too. For the past few years they’ve hovered between 153 and 163 year. This year, they hit 163 by the end of September.

“We’re on pace to probably have by the end of the year, the most mental health calls, at least in the last five years and probably ever for our police service,” said Sgt. Jason Blacquiere with Summerside police services. 

RCMP have noticed an increase as well. Mental health calls rose from 435 to 560 between 2017 and 2019. This year, though, the numbers appear to be down slightly.

Those numbers don’t include calls such as domestic disputes and disturbances for example, that end up being a mental health call, said RCMP Staff Sgt. Kevin Baillie.

It’s really too much for some people to cope with— Sgt. Jason Blacquiere, Summerside Police Services

On top of all the mental health calls, police also handle hundreds of wellness checks every year, which are also on the rise.

Wellness checks involve police checking on those with physical health concerns — for example when someone hasn’t been able to contact an elderly relative who lives alone and has a chronic condition.

Wellness checks also are requested by those concerned about a person’s mental health, including those recently released from psychiatric care. 

Wellness checks are counted separately.

In Charlottetown, there have been 249 wellness checks as of Sept. 30, compared to 153 in 2018 and 194 in 2019; and in Summerside there have been 111 as of Sept. 30, compared to 130 for the whole year in 2019.

The COVID effect

Blacquiere suspects the pandemic is part of the reason for the rise in calls — that’s what officers are hearing when they handle calls. 

“It is a very real concern that they had a lot of stress,” he said. “So the fear of having the virus itself, the fear of having the virus in the community, along with financial stress from job loss and combined with other pre-existing issues. It’s really too much for some people to cope with or manage on their own.”

The behaviour is escalating.— Brad MacConnell, Charlottetown Police Service

While the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges for those who rely on community support and getting out to help them cope, the rise in mental health calls didn’t start with COVID, said MacConnell, and it won’t end when the pandemic passes either.

“People suffering from mental health in our communities and the lack of support for them certainly has festered over the years to bring it to this point,” he said.

There were 741 mental health calls to police in Charlottetown last year up from 453 in 2017. In extreme cases they can involve standoffs. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC News)

Some are in such a crisis that “they resort to extreme behaviours, and whether it’s weapons or harming themselves or lashing out at others. And you know that’s what’s truly concerning, is that it’s evolving to a point where the behaviour is escalating.”

The deputy chief believes untreated addictions and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol have complicated the mental health situation.

“You cannot live in the community and not realize the gaps in mental health supports. They’re every day in our work life. And if you walk through our community, I think you’ll see some physical evidence of that also,” said MacConnell.

MacConnell wouldn’t comment on any specific situations for privacy reasons.

However, he did tell reporters at the times of the incidents that mental health issues were a factor in a murder-suicide of a mother and daughter in July, and an armed standoff with police in August.

‘They’re looking for help’

Officers responding to a call face a host of unknowns. Police can run a criminal background check, but that doesn’t give a full picture of the person’s mental health background and other relevant issues.

“Mental Health Act related calls are one of the higher stress or more concerning for an officer. Generally one or more officers go to a scene and they’ve got to make a determination if that person poses a threat to themselves or others,” said Baillie.

Sometimes we do have to take the person against their will to the hospital– Staff-Sgt. Kevin Baillie, RCMP

If the officer thinks that’s the case, most people go willingly to the hospital for a medical assessment, Baillie said.

“They’re looking for help. They’re looking to be admitted and whatever treatment the doctor prescribes,” he said.

But under the P.E.I. Mental Health Act police can take the person by force if necessary. 

“We like to try to avoid that if we can, but to ensure the person’s safety, sometimes we do have to take the person against their will to the hospital,” he said.

Baillie said he knows a number of cases where people have overdosed intentionally and are near death by the time police arrive.

“We have dealt with a number of cases where a person has taken a serious overdose and he’s unconscious and near death, when the RCMP or Island EMTs arrive,” he said. And they’ve responded to calls where people have seriously hurt others too.

Determining who needs to be hospitalized

There is a huge amount of pressure on officers who respond to mental health calls, said Baillie, since making the wrong call can be fatal. 

“I don’t think any officer wants to deal with the guilt of going to a call like that, not apprehending the person and find out later on that person did do harm to themselves,” said Baillie.

“There have been cases over the years that the officer has left the person at the residence or where they’re at. And later on, you know, it’s turned out badly. The person is harming themselves or others.”

A memorial was set up for a nine-year-old girl and her mother who died in a murder-suicide in Sherwood in July. (Julien LeCacheur/CBC News)

While all officers are trained to handle mental health calls and de-escalate situations, “we’re not medical professionals and have nowhere near the training of a psychiatrist or psychologist,” said Baillie.

Blacquiere agrees. “Nobody likes to see anybody in crisis and the police aren’t any different,” he said. “We try and serve them as best we can.” 

Some of the calls involve people police have dealt with before, and some of those contacts have been on a regular basis. 

There’s a bond, a sense of trust, said Baillie and for that reason, they often go willingly if police have to take them to hospital.

“When you live in a small city like Charlottetown it becomes very intimate,” said MacConnell.

“We see these individuals, they play hockey with our kids, they play baseball, our kids go to school together. And sometimes it’s those kids that we’re dealing with also.”

Impact on officers

Responding to these calls can take a toll on the officers themselves. 

“When you’re exposing your front-line officers to people that are constantly in mental health crisis and you can see how that can bleed into your own mental health situation,” said MacConnell.

Deputy Chief Brad MacConnell, left, was one of a team of police officers who responded to an armed standoff in Charlottetown in August 2020. (CBC News)

All the police agencies said they look forward to the development of mobile mental-health crisis units, which the province is in the process of developing.

“If this doesn’t come to reality at the earliest opportunity, then we’re going to have to look at finding ways to design our own approach,” said MacConnell.

“I would like to see them done now.”

More from CBC P.E.I.

 

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