Participants in the recent Nelson At Its Best anti-poverty summit identified mental health as one of the most pressing issues in the area. Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall

Participants in the recent Nelson At Its Best anti-poverty summit identified mental health as one of the most pressing issues in the area. Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall

COLUMN: Trading handcuffs for health care

West Kootenay police and politicians agree we’re not doing enough to address the intensifying mental health crisis in the Kootenays.

When police officers entered the apartment of a distraught Nelson resident on the night of Sunday, May 24, they immediately noted the chaotic state of their surroundings.

A mattress had been dragged on to the porch, a bed frame was propped precariously against the wall and two disconnected televisions sat unplugged on the floor.

The woman inside the apartment was well-known to police, and when they arrived at approximately 10:30 p.m. she was loudly threatening to stab anyone who attempted to take her belongings with a kitchen knife.

“The woman was in very poor mental health. She was in a highly agitated state. The officers engaged her in conversation, but their efforts were fruitless. She was bound and determined to protect her property from ‘them’,” reads a press release written by Sgt. Brian Weber.

As it turned out, the woman did indeed have a knife, and when she lunged for the officers they had no choice but to shock her with a taser, disrupting her motor functions long enough so they could handcuff her while she seized on the floor.

Criminalizing the sick

According to Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall, that Sunday’s incident was the end result of the government downloading the cost of dealing with the mental health crisis on to local municipalities and their police forces.

The tasered woman is only one example of the huge number of Kootenay residents in mental health distress who are not receiving the support they need, and in an impassioned speech at the legislature on May 26 she called on the government to take action.

“The only service these people receive is through the police,” Mungall said. “And the police are the last people who want to be in a situation where they have to put somebody who’s sick in jail for something that could’ve been prevented had they gotten appropriate care.”

This isn’t a new observation, though—quite the opposite. When I first moved to the Kootenays a year ago, the intensifying mental health crisis was the first thing Nelson Police Chief Wayne Holland told me about.

Throughout the last year Holland campaigned for both an increase to the police budget and the introduction of a mental health outreach worker through Car 87, saying his force is being stretched to the limit.

Both of those requests have been denied.

Meanwhile we’ve witnessed the tragic shooting death of Peter de Groot, the suicide of a local father and husband, and a nearly constant stream of bad news about overdoses, violent incidents and robberies.

Most recently, the RCMP added their voice to the chorus, noting a significant uptick in their mental health calls as well.

And since the government isn’t paying to properly treat these people, they’re ending up in handcuffs instead.

“We’re at such a crisis level it’s hard to ignore. The Liberals have taken small steps, but nowhere near the steps that need to be taken,” said Mungall.

Nelson At Its Best

Mungall feels passionately enough about this issue that while acting as house leader she devoted the entire question period to discussing it, along with seven of her MLA colleagues who represent communities such as Port Moody, Terrace and Vancouver.

“We had been wanting to do something like this for quite some time. The seven of us illustrated how much of a crisis we’re in, and how many communities have been impacted.”

Unfortunately, rather than addressing the issue, Health Minister Terry Lake instead criticized the NDP’s election platform and neglected to mention Nelson at all. He touted some new facilities the government is building elsewhere in the province and asserted “We are delivering on our promises.”

I have to respectfully disagree.

Mungall was also present at the recent Nelson At Its Best anti-poverty summit, where participants identified mental health as the second most  concerning issue facing the Nelson community, falling shortly behind housing.

“There are great ways we could be better helping people with mental illness, but we haven’t been delivering those programs to the level it’s needed,” she said.

Instead, we’ve been letting the cops pick up the slack. And that’s not good for them or the people they’re being forced to put behind bars.

Mungall said the tragic thing is it would be cheaper to treat those in mental distress than to incarcerate them. This is the finding of a report completed by parliamentary secretary Darryl Plecas on the mental health crisis, released in December.

But Mungall said the Liberals have ignored the report, choosing a “piece-meal, one-off approach” rather than the large-scale one that’s needed.

“They know the extent of the issue, they know what it’s costing local governments, and they know it’s more expensive than providing appropriate health care,” said Mungall.

Compassion versus condemnation

As I was finishing writing this column, we received word of yet another mental health incident involving Nelson Police—a woman caught injecting and ingesting drugs in a Nelson business’ bathroom.

“The distraught woman was holding a loaded syringe in her hand and refused to put it down,” said Sgt. Dino Falcone.

I wasn’t there, and don’t know many details, but it struck me as odd while reading the release that the police chose to charge the woman with “mischief”.

Is that what we’re really talking about here? Is slapping this woman’s wrist really going to accomplish anything? Or, as Mungall says, is this another example of a person in distress who is being criminalized due to their lack of support?

Your answer probably has a lot to do with whether or not you or anyone in your family has struggled with mental health or substance abuse issues in the past.

It also has a lot to do with how much compassion you carry around from day to day.

The way I figure, we have two options when approaching someone who’s acting out in a criminal fashion due to mental health and substance abuse issues—compassion or condemnation. And as far as I can tell, our community has had enough of condemnation.

I think it’s high time we do the hard work and give these people the human attention and concern they deserve.

Of course that’s easier said than done, and I recognize that this is a multi-faceted issue that involves a number of interconnected environmental factors—poverty, housing etc.—but in my opinion, we’re up to task.

As Mungall put it: “Surely if we can get to the moon, we can provide people with the mental health supports they deserve and need.”