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Police, mental-health leaders team up to improve training, responses

Officers guard the scene of a police-involved shooting awaiting the SIU. Shots were fired by officers around midnight, at a man who was allegedly refusing to drop a knife on a TTC streetcar. Toronto Constable James Forcillo was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Sammy Yatim, 18.

John Hanley/The Globe and Mail

The alarming rise in mental-health-related calls to police has prompted a first-ever, nationwide partnership between Canada's police and mental-health leaders.

With police in Toronto reporting 20,000 calls a year directly related to mental health, and Vancouver police estimating 30 per cent of the one million calls they receive are linked to the issue, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Mental Health Commission of Canada have joined forces to launch a two-day conference Wednesday to discuss better supports, services and training to address the mental-health needs of patients, as well as front-line responders and the community.

Statistics on the rising incidence of mental-health-related cases are alarming, but none more so than the ones that have ended recently in front-page tragedy. Among them: last summer's Toronto street-car shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim; the February, 2012 shooting death of 29-year-old Michael Eligon (blocks from Toronto East General Hospital); and the October, 2011, shooting of 52-year-old Sylvia Klibingaitis, a North York resident with a long history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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Vancouver Chief Constable Jim Chu, president of the CACP and a long-time mental-health awareness advocate, has said his city is in the "grips of a mental health crisis," with the number of arrests made under provision 28 (which gives police the authority to apprehend an individual believed to be mentally ill) having jumped 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012.

Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says the joining of the two organizations marks the first time in Canada representatives from police, health care, law, research and education, and people who have experience with mental illness, are coming together to figure out what works, and what does not, when police and the mentally ill intersect.

"There has been collaboration at the local levels, but this is the first time we've partnered on a national platform," she said. "The whole theme is to look at mental-health issues, in particular interactions between the police and people with mental-health issues. As well, we want to highlight how mental health is handled in the [police] workplace culture and make sure the mental health of the police officers is also a priority. If they can care for their own mental health we will all be more safe."

In any given year, seven million Canadians – one in five – experience a mental-health problem or illness. She estimates that number is even higher among police officers.

CACP spokesman Tim Smith says the conference is a first step toward highlighting the importance of police officers – and everyone involved in the field of mental health – getting the right training and education.

"We get so many calls and most, thankfully, don't end in tragedy," he said. "But the role of the police officer has changed dramatically in recent years. We have officers getting mental-health-related calls and spending six to eight hours in emergency rooms because they have become the main interface for people in crisis. The purpose of the conference is to address what tools and collaborations can be set up to ensure we get mental-health challenged people to a safe haven."

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