Opinion

Editorial: Police forced into social work

There’s a reason why we call them first responders.

Police, firefighters and paramedics are the first people called when we need help. It used to be for fires, car accidents or falling from a tree. But soon police, firefighters and paramedics are going to have to add ‘social worker’ to their job descriptions.

Nanaimo’s top cop said statistics show a 22-per cent increase in the number of mental health calls for his officers since 2010. When they’re walking or biking the beat, police are often the ones contacting social service providers for people in need, checking on vulnerable people to ensure they’re safe, and diffusing dangerous situations.

It’s a specialized skill set that used to fall to case workers. As the provincial government closes facilities for people with mental illness, reduces services and resources, case loads for social workers increase and people simply fall through the cracks.

Where the police used to be the last call, now they’re often the first.

As Nanaimo’s population increases, so does the number of people suffering from some form of mental illness. Nanaimo Citizen Advocacy saw its requests for services increase by 10,000 between 2011 and 2013.

Care for people with mental illness, brain injury or developmental disabilities is complex. With fewer doctors available to take new patients, those high-maintenance clients are left calling crisis lines and walk-in clinics for stop-gap measures instead of a solution.

Add in poverty, poor nutrition, barriers to housing and it doesn’t take long for someone barely getting by to suddenly end up in crisis.

It takes a community to raise a child, but it also takes a community to ensure that our most vulnerable people are safe and cared for. That means access to food and nutrition, health care, adequate social services and affordable housing – not a jail cell.

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