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SERIES: Experts say current system dealing with mental health patients 'unsustainable'

Special Report: As the current Police Act gets reviewed, mental health experts say 'a new way forward' is needed when it comes to how people in crisis are cared for.

This is the second of three stories in a special report. This story highlights nurses' calls for change and what health experts say is needed for mental health emergencies.

PART ONE: Police spend 3,078 hours waiting at two B.C. hospitals, not responding to calls

PART THREE: B.C. residents speak out about their trauma in hopes of saving others

In the battle for better support for those suffering from mental health emergencies, nurses in B.C. have been calling for change and improvements but say they've been ignored. 

Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU), says the need for more mental health services continues to grow.

“We see people more anxious, more upset, more desperate, crying for help. The pressures of everything that we’ve all gone through for the past 15 months really is taking a toll on people’s mental health,” she says.

There are more cries for help and fewer resources, according to Sorensen.  

“We really just do not have enough supports across the health-care system to really provide the care that people with mental health concerns need,” she says. 

Since 2019, ideas and suggestions have been brought forward to the provincial government by the BCNU. Sorensen says nurses are working every day to try and support patients with mental health problems, noting she's frustrated with the lack of change. 

“There has been very little investment in mental health at the point of care where it really makes the difference in the lives of those people who have mental health issues,” she says. “We’ve seen acknowledgment that mental health is a problem, but we really haven’t seen the investments.”

MENTAL HEALTH TREATED AS 'POLICE CUSTODIAL ISSUE'

In Part 1 of this series, we explored how police officers across southern Vancouver Island are spending countless hours every day in hospitals (Victoria General Hospital and Royal Jubilee Hospital) with people experiencing a mental health crisis. Collectively, in 2020, West Shore RCMP, Victoria Police and Saanich Police spent 3,078 hours waiting around. 

A possible solution? Reinstate constable status for hospital security staff, the detachments say, so they can be the ones to monitor mental health patients until they can be seen by a doctor. Hospital security guards were stripped of their peace-officer status in 1997 after a patient’s suicide attempt and lawsuit.

“Police officers are a finite resource. They need to be out in the community doing the work that we need for them to do in the community,” says Sorensen.

The Mayor of the District of Saanich is also calling for the change and wants police to be able to hand over patients once at the hospital. 

“It is not a good use of resources and it is an inappropriate use of resources,” says Fred Haynes. “Mental health crisis is a health issue. It’s being treated as a police custodial issue.”

He adds having police waiting with people experiencing trauma creates more stigma around mental health and signals the individual has done something wrong by being escorted inside with an officer.

The CEO for the Canadian Mental Health Association's B.C. division says being detained by a police officer is one of the most serious things that can happen to a person when they’re in crisis. 

“I think for people in distress, it can lead to an immediate reaction of feeling worried or fearful and I think we’ve heard from people with lived experience it can escalate a situation,” says Jonny Morris. 

NO PLANS TO REINSTATE CONSTABLE STATUS: B.C. GOVERNMENT

BCNU is calling for a different solution than security officers having constable status.

“We’ve been asking for patient safety officers to work in our acute care hospitals,” explains Sorensen. “These safety officers would be working with the nurses and other health-care team members to help deescalate aggression, manage patients who are acutely ill and are needing physical hands-on approaches.”

Morris says the current system is "unsustainable."

"We really do need to find a new way forward,” he says. “Above all, whoever is sitting there really needs to be rigorously trained, rigorously compassionate to people in distress… we have to get that right.” 

Haynes, meanwhile, speaks from personal experience. Having seen a family member go through a crisis, he wants to reduce the police component and increase the health-care component.

“That requires a budget and legislative framework,” says the mayor. 

Glacier Media brought forward these questions to B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. We asked if the security officers would be given constable status again under the Police Act, and if not, what would be done to eliminate police officers waiting in hospitals for hours every day. 

In an email exchange, the office of Mike Farnworth would only provide “background” stating there are no “plans” for things to change. 

“There is no plan at present to issue special provincial constable appointments to hospital security personnel; however, the special committee on reforming the Police Act is also examining the role of police with respect to complex social issues including mental health and wellness, addictions, and harm reduction; and in consideration of any appropriate changes to relevant sections of the Mental Health Act,” reads an email from the minister’s office.

special committee was created on July 8, 2020 to examine the current Police Act and make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly. According to ministry staff, it will "report out with recommendations next spring."

Glacier Media also reached out to Premier John Horgan’s office and Sheila Malcolmson, the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, for comment on the current status of mental health care, but were told: “Farnworth would have covered the response adequately given the subject matter.” 

Both Island Health and the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General state police remaining with patients apprehended under the Mental Health Act until they can be assessed by a physician is a patient safety issue.

“The issues around special provincial constable appointments are complex, involve multiple ministries, legislation and liability issues,” says an Island Health spokesperson.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says there needs to be fundamental reform of how the current system handles crisis care.

“And really think about what we can invest in and do differently to improve the experience of people who are often at their most vulnerable,” says Morris. 

In the final part of this series, we hear from people who've gone through a mental health emergency. They'll provide insight and suggestions to help move things forward.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and needs support, call the health support line at 310-6789 to be connected to the Crisis Line Association of BC.