Two rural Nova Scotia police forces say their officers aren't adequately equipped to help people experiencing mental health crises, but they're often the only service available when someone calls.
At least four people have died during police wellness checks in Canada since April, prompting calls to defund the police and instead reallocate some money toward mental health supports and services.
"This isn't the type of work that we sign on to do, and it's not the type of work that we're actually trained well to do," Chief Dave MacNeil with the Truro Police Service told CBC's Mainstreet.
Earlier this month, police in New Brunswick killed two people during wellness checks, Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore. Just a week before Moore's death, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black-Indigenous woman living in Toronto with Nova Scotia roots, died after falling from a high-rise balcony after her family called the police for help.
Advocates say officers aren't equipped to handle the wide and complex range of mental health issues that exist and that there's already a lack of trust in law enforcement within Black and Indigenous communities.
MacNeil said if his officers never had to respond to another mental health call in his career, he'd be happy.
"We don't call mental health clinicians to respond to break and enters, but unfortunately the police are kind of the agency of last resort," he said. "We're the only 24/7 helping agency in most communities, and people call the police for all kinds of things."
The Halifax area has a Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team that pairs officers with mental health professionals, but rural communities don't have access to similar supports, he said.
While Truro police can get help from the mental health crisis team at the local hospital, staff are only available during the week, MacNeil said. That means in the middle of the night or on the weekends, police are the only service available to help.
In the first six months of 2020, Truro police responded to a total of 252 mental health calls, including 79 wellness checks, according to MacNeil.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said last week that the number of mental health calls her officers respond to is growing exponentially.
'Recognize, relax, respond' training
Truro police officers receive training in mental health at the academy and "recognize, relax and respond" training when they arrive on the force, MacNeil said.
While officers can't diagnose someone, they're trained to identify when someone needs mental health support, he said.
Deputy Chief Danny MacPhee with the Bridgewater Police Service said his officers receive mental health training every other year.
"We have received really consistently multiple types of mental health training, crisis management training, different spectrums of it. So we've dealt with autism spectrum, some dementia, you know, because of our senior community as well," he said.
But the problem, said MacPhee, is that the training doesn't go much beyond being able to recognize when someone is in crisis.
"We're not full-time mental health case workers. We're not in crisis management every day. We don't have that experience from working full time …. That's not our profession. That's not who we are," MacPhee said, adding that last Thursday in Bridgewater, five of the 10 calls that came in during the day involved a mental health component.
Both MacPhee and MacNeil say much more needs to be done to help Nova Scotians in crisis, including for rural police departments to have access to a mobile response team like the Halifax area.
"As a police officer, sometimes I find the system difficult to navigate to give people help. We need to streamline things so that people who are in crisis get the timely help that they need," MacNeil said.
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