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Mental health-related calls up dramatically for police

Social disorder calls that involve police dealing with people suffering from mental health issues don’t appear in crime statistics, but they’re soaking up more time and resources each year, say Nanaimo RCMP.

Supt. Mark Fisher, the detachment’s commanding officer, said Nanaimo isn’t unique and that the rising trend is taxing community resources to varying degrees across the province.

“One area where we’ve seen a significant increase that isn’t replicated in those stats, but takes up a significant amount of time and resources, is in the area of mental health,” Fisher said. “Our mental health calls from 2011 to 2013 have gone up almost 22 per cent, so that’s a huge impact on the amount of time we spend dealing with these issues in the community, front-line response and the draw on our members and resources.”

John Horn, city social planner, said representatives from the city, Island Health and social agencies convened in 2013 to study the main social issues and discuss how to direct resources.

“Of the things that they said we should be focusing on as a municipality, mental health rose up as the No. 1 issue,” Horn said. “There were other issues that went along with things like that, such as social isolation, poverty and things like that, but they all said that mental health is something we seem to be seeing more of and that’s something we need to get a better grip on.”

Suicide numbers, Horn said, are not declining as expected, given resources available and improvements in the economy overall.

“Why, in modern life, with all the services, supports and amenities available to us, why are suicides still such a significant feature of our mental health landscape?” Horn asked.

He thinks today’s variety of drugs – illicit and legal pharmaceuticals – available for potential abuse could be pushing greater numbers of people, already suffering mental and emotional damage, into crisis, but the underlying causes and effects are almost impossible to unravel.

On the other hand, Horn said, rising numbers of mental health-related cases could simply be due to rising population. About 800 people move to Nanaimo per year. If one or two per cent of them – say eight to 16 people – suffer mental health issues requiring emergency services one or more times over the course of a year, a few people can drastically skew statistics. Repeat the scenario annually and the mounting time- and resource-intensive calls put an ever greater load on emergency responders, equipment and resources.

“It’s like trying to push the sea back with a broom,” Horn said. “Sometimes all the resources in the world aren’t enough.”

What the city can do, Horn said, is try to help people with food, shelter and whatever other stressors that can reasonably be alleviated, to try to divert people at risk from going into crisis.

Jeorge McGladrey, Nanaimo Citizen Advocacy executive director, and her staff are first-hand witnesses to the rising tide. In 2011 her office dealt with 45,276 interventions (services provided to clients). In 2013 that number jumped to 56,453.

“And the majority, they have mental health issues,” McGladrey said.

Ongoing disability applications, primarily for mental health issues, handled by McGladrey’s staff jumped to 1,586 in 2013 from 1,192 in 2011.

“A lot of these people, because they have no doctors … they end up using all of those resources (police, fire, ambulance) and that is such a huge abuse of those resources,” McGladrey said.

Fisher said the RCMP’s first priority, regardless of how many special units are formed, is to provide safety for the community and part of that is responding with the community to deal with social disorder calls.

“One thing Nanaimo does particularly well in is it is a community response here,” Fisher said. “It’s not just  simply one officer or only the police or simply the health agencies that deal with individuals in crisis. We do try to take a co-ordinated approach.”

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