When I showed up for my shift the other night at the concurrent disorders (mental health and addictions) transitional program where I work, I was told that one of the patients was being sent to hospital because she was having intense, active suicidal ideation. Shortly after I arrived, paramedics and police showed up, and that’s when things began to go downhill.
Getting someone to hospital
The paramedics seemed reluctant to transport her to hospital, which is a whole other story. Regardless, it was generally agreed that, given the severity of her suicidal thinking, it wasn’t appropriate for her to go to hospital on a voluntary basis. A section of the provincial Mental Health Act allows police to take someone to hospital involuntarily if they’re clearly mentally unwell and posing a risk to self or others. The police and paramedics decided that the patient would be taken to hospital in the back of a police car.
As I was trying to explain to the patient what was happening and why, she was clearly disturbed. She asked fearfully “will I have to go in handcuffs?” My automatic response was “absolutely not”. I was then informed that it’s standard procedure for the police force in that city to handcuff people being transported to hospital under the Mental Health Act.
Jaw. Drop. In the city where I’ve worked for most of my career, police don’t transport mental health patients to hospital; ambulances do. A police officer may ride along in the ambulance followed by their partner in the police car if needed. The only times I’ve seen people handcuffed was when they were extremely agitated. I’ve been apprehended by police under the Mental Health Act on one occasion, and at that time I was taken by ambulance with a police officer accompanying, with no mention of handcuffs. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be cuffed and shoved in the back of a police car.
Mental illness is not a crime
In a society with so much stigma against mental illness, the system needs to try harder and do more to respect people’s dignity. To treat mentally ill people in crisis like criminals is a huge step backwards. It disgusts me that police would consider it appropriate to routinely handcuff people who are in extreme mental distress. If the poor mentally ill person wasn’t traumatized before, they sure as hell are now.
Had I been that patient who was basically told that it was a special exception and privilege not to be handcuffed, I would never again disclose to care providers when I was having thoughts of suicide. If police and being handcuffed are the consequences of disclosing suicidal thinking, why would anyone be motivated to share that? It is hard enough to get treatment for those with mental illness; to have that kind of disincentive is the sort of thing that can end up costing people their lives.
When society treats people with mental illness as criminals, we all lose. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police clearly has a lot of work to do. This sort of routine practice is abhorrent and needs to stop.
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You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.