Commentary  Letter: Policing Mental Health and Wellness

Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are Criminalized and Killed for their Mental Health Conditions

In an effort to condemn injustices perpetrated by the police against Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly those with mental health conditions, I am calling all members of government and the community to action. This article may be shared and used as a letter template to engage your local members of government and your communities. For a guide to contacting elected officials in Canada, see here. Find Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament (Quebec), and Mayors, City Councillors (Montreal). Be sure to properly address your letter and sign with your postal code.


In an effort to condemn injustices perpetrated by the police against Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly those with mental health conditions, I am calling all members of government and the community to action. 

 

On May 27, 2020 Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death in Toronto. Days later, Chantel Moore was fatally shot in Edmunston, continuing the ominous legacy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Two Spirit people (#MMIW) in Canada . These two deaths share an unfortunate link Canadian police responded to mental health and wellness-related calls and were ill-equipped to respond empathetically and appropriately. The city of Toronto, which is located on the land traditionally kept by the  Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, has supported the family and the call for justice for Korchinski-Paquet (#JusticeForRegis). Edmunston, New Brunswick, is located on traditional and unceded land Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples and has done likewise (#MMIW, #JusticeForChantelMoore).

 

          Though these two women’s deaths are especially salient, mental health and policing have a largely fatal history. In 2017, CBC news published an investigation into police-related civilian deaths in Canada. They found that 70 per cent of these 461 deaths since 2000 involved individuals suffering with mental illness including substance use problems. Furthermore, the BC division of the Canadian Mental Health Association has found that 30 per cent of individuals with “serious” mental illness “had contact with the police for making, or trying to make, their first contact with the mental health system.”

 

  Being Black, Indigenous and/or living with mental health conditions is criminalized. Though no database exists onthe police killings of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) in Canada, it is well-known that these populations are particularly vulnerable to police brutality and systemic discrimination. There is worldwide unrest surrounding recent events and about continued systemic discrimination/oppression, such as the murder  of Nicholas Gibbs by the SPVM in 2018 and unfortunately many others. It is undeniable that the justice system criminalizes BIPOC folks who experience mental illness, and that that criminalization directly results in police violence. 

 

Analyzing data from 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 1 in 5 people coming into contact with the police met criteria for a mental disorder. Even accounting for the nature of the alleged crime, people with mental health are doubly likely to be arrested than the general population as one 2011 Canadian study has found. This troubling statistic is illuminated by the stigmatization people with mental health conditions and BIPOC experience every day. Genevieve Jonhnston discusses in their 2019 article how perceptions of mental health and race intersect to portray whites as “innocent victims” and Indigenous peoples as “addicts” when discussing substance use. This perception then directly affects racialized people’s outcomes; one researcher notes that “substance use and conduct disorders are common among arrested North American Indigenous youth and increase their likelihood of arrest.” Many have condemned the current system of wellness checks and demanded the removal of police from these types of call outs, including a respected Canadian mental health organization, CAMH. 

 

The police are needlessly violent, biased, and largely divested from programs that involve mental health training or partnerships with mental health professionals. For instance, the Mental Health Commission of Canada developed a police MFHA, which involved merely 8.5 hours of teaching and learning.  So, no, mental health first aid (MHFA) training for police will not be an appropriate solution. Other programs have lacked and always will lack permanency and funding. The police have no interest in special units and programs like police and nurse dyads, such as Car 87 and Car 67 (Vancouver/Surrey) that attempt to divert arrests. In Surrey, the city plans to switch from RCMP to police response and to cut down their 2015-initiated program from 20 trained officers to 11 in 2021. Interestingly, a study based on data from the United States also found that while arrest diversion programs (often called crisis intervention teams) have led to more positive police satisfaction and self-perception, there is little objective evidence of their efficacy

 

Police respond to sensitive and acute mental health-related situations that require the empathy and expertise of actual health professionals. There is no safe replacement for years of clinical training, practicums, and regular meetings and support from knowledgeable colleagues. The framework within which health professionals operate is the only one that currently reduces harms. It does not criminalize but normalizes mental health conditions, which 50% of canadians will experience by their forties. No training or programming involving the police will suitably respond to community mental health needs; it has not and never will be prioritized given the ableism and racism at policing’s roots. We know that police do not empathize with or prioritize the lives of individuals with mental health disorders, especially not if those individuals are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour.  

 

As an elected official, representing me, other residents of Montreal, and Canadians, you have a responsibility to dismantle systems that are inefficient, expensive, and dangerous. This includes defunding the police, as many Canadians have called for in their use of hashtags #DefundThePolice and #AbolishThePolice, their advocacy for Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, and ongoing demonstrations against police brutality following George Floyd’s murder (#JusticeForGeorgeFloyd).

 

You are equally responsible for protecting and honouring the lives of those with mental health conditions, as well as Black and Indigenous peoples continually harmed by the colonial and institutional violence perpetrated by settlers. Some steps that must be taken to fulfill this duty include:

 

  • Listening: stop minimizing the concerns and demands of the people with lazy policies and changes like MHFA programs or promises of body-cams on police. We do not want footage of sanctioned violence against people living with mental health conditions or BIPOC. We want change.
  • Defund Canada’s police and redistribute those funds to appropriate, empathetic, anti-racist programming.
  • Build and fund response teams composed of mental health professionals and crisis workers only.
  • End police response to mental health and wellness related calls, including substance use, domestic abuse, and mental health emergencies.
  • Equip emergency medical technicians with appropriate training and additional resources, so that police aren’t dispatched when 911 is called for mental health concerns. 

 

           This article may be shared and used as a letter template to engage your local members of government and your communities. For a guide to contacting elected officials in Canada, see here. Find Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament (Quebec), and Mayors, City Councillors (Montreal). Be sure to properly address your letter and sign with your postal code.

 

To support the call for justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet:

  • Protect yourself – take a moment of pause, share with your support network and boost your mental health by accessing coping and mental health resources appropriate for you. For instance, Liberate Meditation offers free and paid meditations made by and for BIPOC.
  • Support Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s family with a donation.
  • Donate to political organizations, community organizations and mutual aid programs, such as those listed here for the Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Atlantic and Prairie regions of Canada.
  • Attend protests and demonstrations. Respect and grieve for those who have passed. Organizations like Not Another Black Life have been mobilizing these efforts in Toronto.
  • If you are white or white-passing practice active allyship (e.g. contributing resources, providing pro-bono legal/medical services, using your body as a barrier against police brutality).

 

To support the call for justice for Chantel Moore:

  • Protect yourself – take a moment of pause, share with your support network and boost your mental health by accessing culturally safe resources, such as those found here.
  • Support Chantel Moore’s family with a donation and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation by learning from their website and purchasing from those listed in their business directory.
  • Attend events like healing walks to grieve and heal from Chantel Moore and the MMIW’s passing.
  • Protect and honour Indigenous peoples’ rights and autonomy, including to their traditionally kept lands and waters. Support organizations like Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs (RAVEN), who raise funds to fight environmental racism.