Increase in mental health calls to Fredericton police signals lagging supports, experts say

·3 min read
The Fredericton Police Force saw a 27 per cent increase in the number of mental health-related calls it received in 2021 compared to 2020. (Daniel McHardie/CBC - image credit)
The Fredericton Police Force saw a 27 per cent increase in the number of mental health-related calls it received in 2021 compared to 2020. (Daniel McHardie/CBC - image credit)

The Fredericton Police Force saw 27 per cent more calls for mental health-related incidents in 2021, and that has law enforcement experts concerned about a lack of mental health support by the province.

The Fredericton Police Force received 939 mental health calls in 2021, and that doesn't include part of December. That's up from 739 received in 2020, according to statistics released by the force.

And compared to 2019, the statistics from 2021 are a near 47 per cent increase in the number of such calls, which include requests to transport someone to a hospital for mental health treatment.

"You can see that the calls are significant," said Fredericton Police Chief Roger Brown, who shared the statistics with the City of Fredericton's public safety committee last Thursday.

That trend doesn't surprise Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association.

He said police forces across the country have seen an uptick in mental health-related calls for "many years" now.

CBC
CBC

"In fact, police services and police associations frankly have been calling for a better system-wide approach to dealing with mental health issues in communities for years," Stamatakis said.

"And the other piece of it is police have been calling for more funding for, you know, co-responder programs... where you have, you know, a police officer working with someone who's, you know, a trained mental health professional so that these calls when they're happening in the community, it can be can be managed as effectively as they can.

"But again, even with that, if you don't have the capacity in the [health-care] system to properly support people with mental health issues, you know these kinds of statistics are going to be reported out every year."

Brown wasn't available for an interview, but in an emailed statement Monday said the force has four social workers on staff as part of its Integrated Community Service Unit within the patrols division.

He said they support calls related to mental health crises, youth-at-risk, vulnerable populations and victims and witnesses of crime.

"Having their expertise on staff has proven invaluable and has helped with a number of complex files," Brown said.

While hiring more social workers helps, Stamatakis said it shouldn't be seen as the solution.

"You have a police service with, you know, a particular mandate and all kinds of demands in terms of their resources, whether it's funding or people. They're now reallocating police funding to hire social workers and other persons to support responding to mental health issues in the community.

"Why isn't [the Department of Health] funding those additional non-police positions?"

CBC News did not receive a response from the Department of Health before publication time.

Taking mental health calls out of hands of police

Recent examples of police-involved killings in New Brunswick have sparked debate over the role police should play in responding to certain calls.

Chantel Moore was shot and killed in Edmundston in June 2020 by a police officer who visited her home to do a wellness check.

And last October, the jury in a coroner's inquest into the police killing of Rodney Levi recommended that a unit consisting of specially-trained mental health social workers and nurses be deployed alongside emergency services when conducting wellness checks.

Michael Boudreau, a professor of criminology at St. Thomas University, said those examples make the case for establishing an emergency response process that calls on mental health professionals before police officers.

"We could have a triage system where… if it's a less serious incident, then it's not directed to the police. It is directed to someone like a social worker who can respond," Boudreau said.

"But that requires funding. It requires organizational skills. And in that sense, the provincial government needs to — and federal governments as well — need to provide more funding to implement that."

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