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MHCC releases study on police interactions with people with mental health conditions

April 20, 2012

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has released a new report titled “A Study of How People with Mental Illness Perceive and Interact with the Police.” The study was supported through the MHCC’s Mental Health and the Law Advisory Committee’s Police Projects, with the intention of helping to ensure that the perspectives of persons living with mental health conditions will inform the development of police education and learning programs related to mental health.

The goal of this study was to improve the understanding of how people with mental health conditions perceive and interact with the police. The study was carried out in British Columbia from August 2009 to March 2011. The study included a literature review, interview, survey, and focus group methods. A Participatory Action Research approach was used to promote community engagement, active participation, and collaboration of people with mental health conditions. Study participants included people who live with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, other psychosis, or bipolar disorder and have had direct contact with the police, including 60 people who participated in interviews, 244 people who completed surveys, and 28 people who took part in focus groups.

Review of the literature revealed trends regarding police interactions with people with mental health conditions, including among others: the majority of interactions between the police and people with mental health conditions are initiated either by the police (about 25 per cent), the person with a mental health condition (about 15 per cent), or their family (about 20 per cent); people with mental health conditions are over-represented in police shooting, stun gun incidents, and fatalities; police encounters with people who have mental health conditions that involve police use of force are rare; half of police encounters that involve people with mental health conditions result in transport or referral to services; and 2 in 5 encounters between the police and people with mental health conditions are resolved informally.

Survey responses and interviews revealed that:

  • Interview participants’ most recent experiences with the police commonly included a mental health crisis (28 per cent), being stopped on the street by the police (18 per cent), or requesting assistance from the police as a victim of a crime (18 per cent).
  • Most interview participants thought it would be helpful for a police officer to have access to background information about a person with a mental health condition prior to arriving on scene with them, especially if the officer was trained how to use the information appropriately.
  • 90 per cent of interview participants felt that it was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important to train police officers to handle situations that involve people with mental health conditions.

Participants recommended the following elements for a training program that teaches police how to handle situations involving people with mental health conditions:

  1. Effective communication skills,
  2. Understanding mental health and its effects,
  3. Treating people with compassion and respect, and
  4. Non-violent conflict resolution skills.

Additional strategies suggested for improving how people with mental health conditions perceive and interact with the police included:

  1. Building stronger linkages between the police and the mental health community,
  2. Recognizing and rewarding positive police practices,
  3. Selecting and supporting police officers,
  4. Creating positive role models among police officers,
  5. Increasing accountability and oversight of the police, and
  6. Ensuring that health professionals are involved in responding to mental health-related calls for police service.

To access the full report, visit www.mentalhealthcommission.ca.

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