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LETTER: Militarized responses to mental health crises backfire

Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their daughter Aaliyah. - Facebook
Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their daughter Aaliyah. - Facebook - -

Mounties called to deal with suicidal N.S. soldier over a year before murders-suicide” (Feb.18 story).

Our mental health failures are captured in one headline. Imagine feeling depressed. Isolated. Betrayed by your country and the military you pledged your life to. Now, imagine looking out from your lonely room to see heavily armed police officers.

Would that vision calm you down?

Healthy, emotionally stable people are destabilized — terrified — by police swarming. Instead of a gun, wouldn’t you appreciate a kind word? I know I would. But our laws require military-style response to medical questions. Crazy? I don’t mean the person in distress. I’m referring to absent care for people who suffer from mental illness.

Why wasn’t a psychologist called to deal with a suicidal person?

The answer to that question is found in provincial law. The Mental Health Act calls for police to implement procedures when a person is disturbed by their emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Few police officers are doctors of clinical psychology.

It’s been a decade since Dr. John Ross investigated a Prescription for New Medicine, recommending that someone should evaluate whether it makes sense to have a cop do a doctor’s work: “The Justice Department and Department of Health need to review how police enforce the Mental Health Act. Currently police must wait for long periods of time with patients … Having police wait with patients for a formal psychiatry assessment is a poor use of such resources and a threat to public safety” (p.76).

Dr. Ross clarified a tragic gap in 2010. In 2020 (our vision is not that clear), we are still sending police to provide psychological services — too often with a tragic outcome. Yet provincial law mandates dysfunctional response. Adding economic insult to moral harm, when we send a police person to do a psychologist’s job, we pay the police a higher salary.

With the result that — when police suffer from PTSD — no psychologists are available to treat officers traumatized by confrontations experienced from enforcing the Mental Health Act. Confrontation is exactly the illogical and cruel response that we direct to patients like Lionel Desmond — who catastrophically gave his family’s life for his country.

The word “enforcing” captures the lunacy of sending guns to treat illness. No cancer patient benefits when confronted with a loaded pistol for the crime of being medically sick.

Perhaps in another decade we may have sympathy for people — while they still live — whose crime is that they suffer from a sickness that is emotional. Respect vs. guns sounds like a caricature of an Economics 101 principle. But when the tradeoff is death, is a little respect and care too much to ask? 

Brian Reid, Granville Ferry

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