Mental health issues in Ottawa's minority communities need to be "destigmatized" so people facing those challenges can get help, a community meeting heard Thursday afternoon.
About two dozen people and representatives of several organizations attended the meeting of the city's Community and Police Action Committee at City Hall.
"Mental health is stigmatized in the black community ... we need to destigmatize it, bring it to the public forum, for people to get engaged, for black people to help one another, but also to go seek help," said committee member César Ndéma-Moussa, president of the Caribbean Union of Canada.
Thursday's discussion was inspired in part by two recent high-profile criminal cases in Ottawa: the death of Abdirahman Abdi during a confrontation with police last summer, and the deaths of sisters Asma and Nasiba A-Noor in December.
Abdi, 37, lost vital signs during a July confrontation outside a Hilda Street apartment complex. Const. Daniel Montsion of the Ottawa Police Service was charged earlier this week with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.
Abdi, a member of the city's Somali-Canadian community, suffered from as yet unspecified mental health issues before his death.
Musab A-Noor still deemed unfit to stand trial
The A-Noor sisters, also Somali-Canadians, were found dead when police were called to a home on McCarthy Road in the city's south end on Dec. 16.
Their brother, 29-year-old Musab A-Noor, has been charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder, but after 60 days of treatment at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, remains unfit to stand trial.
Ndéma-Moussa told CBC News outside Thursday's meeting that many people in the black community feel revealing their mental health struggles and seeking help is a sign of weakness.
"You have people who go from generation to generation with a constant reminder that they have to be tough because they're black," he said.
"For too many people in the black community, that's how it's perceived. But we're trying to change that perception."
'It takes a comprehensive approach'
At the same time, community members believe police need to be fully aware of mental health issues and how to deal with them in order to keep everyone safe.
"The biggest fear is having your family member having to interact with police, and it going very negative where the person gets harmed," said Halcian Joseph, who came to the meeting to hear police and community organizations discuss strategies.
"So we always as a family work to prevent that from happening — prevent them from having to fall into the hands of the law and not getting the kind of care and attention they need."
Joseph hopes meetings like this lead to ongoing collaboration between police and community stakeholders.
"It's not one person or one institution that can fix it. Mental health issues — dealing with that — it takes a comprehensive approach."