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March 1, 2021

Police wellness checks are in need of a change

By: Haeley DiRisio

Police wellness checks are performed when someone whose mental health or well-being are a potential danger to themselves or others. Officers are called to assess the person’s mental health, as well as to ensure that the person’s living situation is healthy and stable. 

However, more often than not, wellness checks become violent — and not just at the hands of the vulnerable person. Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee, a psychologist and the founder and director of Slim Centre for Mental Health in Toronto, said she thinks that police should not be the ones conducting these wellness checks.

“I definitely think it shouldn't be police,” she said. “It's not their jobs. I think at the end of the day, aside from the fact that police are not trained to respond to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, it's also not likely why they became police.”

A document released by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in 2015, which outlines the OPP’s strategy for dealing with mental health, suggested that the police are working with mental health service providers to inform their strategy.

“Strong leadership is required at all levels of the OPP to ensure successful implementation of the strategy,” the document wrote. “Research and consultation also confirmed the need to involve mental health service providers, mental health consumers and people with lived experience, in the oversight and ongoing development of the strategy.”

Dr. Alani-Verjee said that it’s important for mental health professionals to be involved in these situations.

“There are some cities and some regions that are working towards having mental health responders who can go and respond when there's a mental health crisis,” Dr. Alani-Verjee said. “I think that is a good first step.” 

Officers who respond to wellness checks are often not equipped with the training they need to handle these situations. Although there is training in de-escalation, Dr. Alani-Verjee suggested that more needs to be done.

“When someone else is clearly in crisis or is dysregulated, how do you bring them back down, as opposed to meeting them with the same level of confrontation that they're giving to you?” Dr. Alani-Verjee said. “Because the moment we do that, that person will likely up their level of dysregulation or escalation because they're just trying to be heard and have their needs met.”

Greg Brown, a sociology professor at Carleton University and a 30-year veteran of the Ottawa Police Service, said it would not be a good idea to remove police from wellness checks altogether.

“We had an episode in the small town I live in, south of Ottawa, where a young man in a mental health crisis episode stabbed the social worker to death in the community group home,” Brown said. Although the social worker had extensive training, Brown said that it is still necessary for police to be present.

Dr. Alani-Verjee noted that a distrust in law enforcement from marginalized communities can also affect the discourse of police wellness checks.

“When you see someone who you had historically known to not be a person who will keep you safe and protect you, you're much more likely to, No. 1, be afraid, but No. 2, behave in a way that's going to protect yourself or to be ready to have to protect yourself,” Dr. Alani-Verjee said. “Unfortunately, that can cause us to make a situation more violent than it needs to be.”

As Canada has seen in recent years, wellness checks on people of colour or Indigeous people have become fatal. A June 2020 article by Alex Cooke of CBC News recounted several recent deaths during police wellness checks, as well as a history of deaths in police encounters for people suffering from mental health issues.

“A CBC News analysis of 461 police deaths in Canada between 2000 and 2017 revealed 70 per cent of people who died during encounters with police suffered from mental health or substance abuse problems,” Cooke wrote. “It also found Black and Indigenous people were over-represented in these deaths.” 

Both Dr. Alani-Verjee and Brown said that mental health services need to be more accessible.

“Because of the absence of, or significant deficiencies in community-based mental health, the responsibility for interacting with individuals struggling with mental health and/or drug and alcohol dependencies falls on the front-line police function,” Brown said.

Another issue is that many people are not able to access these services because they do not have the money to do so.

“The paid services are generally not accessible financially,” Dr. Alani-Verjee said. “So, either you're waiting likely around a year to three years to get a publicly funded service, or you're paying out of pocket, anywhere between 80 to 300 dollars per hour to talk to someone.”

Dr. Alani-Verjee also stressed the importance of understanding and normalizing mental illness. Starting with education and awareness can create the changes necessary for the safety of anyone suffering from mental illness. 

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