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Mental Illness is Not a Crime


My Councillor initiative is mental health.

I've been a mental health advocate for years, sitting on several boards that promoted education and stigma reduction on the issue.

I’m also the son of an alcoholic. And as a journalist, I researched and wrote a number of feature stories about addiction and its relationship with childhood trauma and mental illness.

So here’s the thing: I wasn’t happy when I read a recent newspaper story about police plans to jail the mentally ill. A lot of other people were upset, too.

But after re-reading the story, I became suspicious.  I’m one of two city councillors who sit on the Police Commission and had heard nothing of such plans to jail vulnerable people.

So I found the relevant police report. Long-story short, the Edmonton Police Service is routinely dispatched to calls involving people in mental crisis. But because hospitals are busy, officers often have to wait for hours with the patient before he or she is admitted.

The Remand Centre was considered as a possible option because it has a medical unit. The idea, then, was to find patients prompt care while allowing police to return to duty faster. The media account made none of this clear to the reader.

Nor did it get at the more significant issue — that we have allowed the most public face of mental illness and addiction, homelessness, to linger for decades without a proper response. And we left it to police to fix things.

Trained and equipped to protect the city from the criminal element, the police are being forced, more and more, to do what amounts to health care and/or social service work.

To the credit of the Police Chief Rod Knecht, the Edmonton Police Service has instituted teams that are specifically trained to deal with mental health crises. Those teams include a police officer and a social worker. Not only that, but the Edmonton Police Service is perhaps the most highly trained in Canada to support people in a mental health crisis.

Such encounters can be harrowing. But the training greatly reduces the potential for a tragic outcome.

In the end, front-line police officers, as well as Edmonton’s homeless citizens, deserve better. The federal and provincial governments must step up with increased funding for proper housing, care and treatment of people with mental illness and chronic addictions.

Yes, the public reacted in horror at the idea of jailing vulnerable people. But is a cold, lonely night in a grimy alley any better? 


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