The Nelson Police Department is looking for a better way to respond to calls related to people with mental illness.
According to police chief Wayne Holland, local officers respond to around 1,000 mental illness calls per year and often pick up the same individuals several times per week.
“Our officers are running into the same emotionally disturbed individuals four times per week easily,” said Holland, explaining that when police find someone in an agitated state due to mental illness, they will often transport them to Kootenay Lake Hospital or keep them in a jail cell until they calm down and are released without charges.
But Holland thinks there’s a better option. The Vancouver Police Department — where Holland worked before coming to Nelson — has a dedicated mental health car staffed with a constable and a psychiatric nurse who provide on-site assessments and determine the most appropriate action for an individual.
Holland is working with Interior Health to get a similar program started here.
“When you find out who their families and support systems are, what their drivers are, what medication they’re on — maybe you find there’s a better option than isolating them in a cold room,” Holland suggested. “Maybe you give them a ride home or bring them to another service provider. Maybe they just need a cup of coffee and a meal.”
Holland said that while crime rates are decreasing, the increase in mental health calls keep police as busy as ever.
To find out just how serious a problem it is here in Nelson, researchers from Simon Fraser University’s Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS) are looking at two years of police incident reports to get a picture of the current situation, which can then can be compared to how things change after an intervention.
ICURS director Bryan Kinney and senior research fellow Richard Bent were in Nelson recently to meet with police and other mental health service providers.
Bent said it’s his team’s first time working outside the Lower Mainland and he’s interested to see how issues are dealt with differently in a rural setting.
“There needs to be a localized response. What works in Vancouver or Kelowna may not be effective here,” said Bent, who was an RCMP officer for 35 years before retiring and moving into academia.
“What we’re looking for is the best way to manage limited policing resources. If there’s a more effective way to address mental health calls it frees up police to deal with other issues.”
Some options, besides the dedicated mental health car, include having a street nurse check up on people downtown or providing officers with training to recognize psychiatric issues.
The researchers expect grad students will help go through the data and have a report back sometime around next April.
Meanwhile, local business owners are advocating for the city to get involved in the solution. City staff attended a Nelson Business Association meeting this past Thursday where they heard from members who said the issues on Nelson streets had gotten worse in the past two years and become a year-round concern.
Some members believed mental health services needed to be increased and better funded while others suggested more services would just bring more problems and wanted services to be spread among other communities.
City manager Kevin Cormack said the city is doing what it can to create a more welcoming downtown, citing recent work on the amenity areas, which business owners agreed was an improvement. The city also increased the police budget this year, which allowed them to hire another officer.
Cormack pointed out that health care and mental health services are funded provincially, and suggested the business owners share their ideas with their local MLA or write to the Minister of Health.
Chief Holland said the Vancouver program has reduced the need for police to deliver people with mental health issues to the hospital emergency room, which makes up for the health care cost of hiring the nurse to work with police.
“Our current approach isn’t good for anyone,” Holland said. “I think we can do better and we must do better for the people who rely on us.”