Surge in mental health calls to police among pandemic's impacts: Health unit

·2 min read

The number of calls to St. Thomas police for mental health reasons nearly doubled in the first year of the pandemic, a new report by Southwestern Public Health shows.

The report, released by the health unit for St. Thomas, Woodstock and Oxford and Elgin counties, gives an indication of a variety of indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, opioid emergencies and unemployment in the region.

St. Thomas police officers responded to 2,200 mental health calls in 2020, a nearly 70 per cent increase from the roughly 1,300 calls received in recent years pre-pandemic, the report shows.

The numbers are consistent with a broader trend of increasing mental health calls from 2018 to 2021, said Chris Herridge, the city’s police chief.

“That is no doubt concerning,” he said. “There is some association with the pandemic. However, a lot of the mental health we deal with here in St. Thomas is connected to the social determinants of health, being poverty, homelessness, mental health and substance use disorder.”

Herridge pointed to different initiatives the force and local agencies have introduced in recent years to help meet the growing need for mental health services. But even programs such as the force’s mobile outreach support team that consists of two Canadian Mental Health Association workers are not enough, he said.

“Police officers do a great job of dealing with mental health calls, but we're not experts in mental health. We’re not experts in addictions. We are experts in the core functions of policing,” Herridge said. “This collaboration is needed more than what we have.”

With limited resources and provincial funding — something for which Herridge and others continue to push — the outreach team can respond to only about 40 per cent of mental health-related calls, he said.

The health unit report noted mental health calls to Oxford and Elgin provincial police also increased during the pandemic.

“What was interesting is that the other calls didn’t increase the way the mental health calls did,” said Carolyn Richards, epidemiologist and manager of the health unit’s foundational standards program.

Though overall hospital visits declined at the start of the pandemic, Southwestern Public Health officials found there was an increase in the number of people between the ages of 35 and 64 visiting the emergency room for opioid use.

The goal of the report is to help area partners prepare for emergency situations and post-pandemic recovery, Richards said.

“For us,” she said, “it's about having this available to the health unit and to partners to be able to plan how they’ll respond in the future and fill the gaps in recovery.”

Other key findings from the report are:

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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