Mental health should be a priority long before police wellness checks are required: CMHA - InfoNews

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Mental health should be a priority long before police wellness checks are required: CMHA

Shelagh Turner, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Central Region.
July 08, 2020 - 6:30 AM

The roots of the recent ugly video of a wellness check gone wrong in Kelowna is the result of years of underfunding mental health programs, according to the head of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Central Region.

“If there’s one in five people with a serious mental health issue, that’s 20 per cent of the population,” association Executive Director Shelagh Turner told “The investment in mental health is less than eight per cent of the total health care budget and the vast majority of that eight per cent is in acute care, which is the most expensive side of service.”

Therefore, she’s not keen on the idea of adding expensive registered nurses and RCMP officers to Kelowna’s Police and Crisis Team that now responds to about four calls per shift on the four days it operates — a fraction of all mental health calls.

That team was not called out when Mona Wang was handcuffed and dragged down a hallway by an RCMP officer doing a wellness check in January. A video of that incident prompted the City of Kelowna and Interior Health to schedule a meeting tomorrow to discuss how best to deal with such calls.

READ MORE: iN VIDEO: RCMP investigating Kelowna officer caught on video dragging nursing student

“Police don’t see themselves as health care,” Turner said. “They’re first responders, but they’re not health care responders, so there’s a little bit of a tension between how they see themselves and what they’re actually having to do.”

The RCMP will not be at that meeting but RCMP Southeast Division Chief Supt. Brad Haugli held a press conference last week saying he wants to work with Interior Health on developing different ways to deal with mental health calls.

READ MORE: Interior RCMP brass call for more mental health workers to help police in light of video

While she has the "utmost respect" for the job police officers have to do, she did suggest they take a good look at how they work with other organizations as part of a "system of care.”

Turner is not invited to tomorrow’s meeting but hopes it’s only the start of a discussion that will involve others, including her association and people with lived experience of mental illness.

“Where police are sitting now in terms of having to be the front line of wellness checks is the result of long standing under-investment in the mental health system,” Turner said. “We definitely have been advocating for years for more investment in early intervention and prevention types of initiatives so mental health crises don’t happen in the first place.”

There needs to be a shift from acute care treatment to dealing with the underlying causes of mental illness, she said.

“Mental illness is more than health care. There are so many reasons why somebody’s mental health might be impacted, like a pandemic, like isolation, like not having a roof over your head or good food in your belly or losing your job.”

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