There is so much deserved attention right now on the role of the police in crisis management. The attention is stirring up important conversations around questions like “what is the best management for different types of crises?” and “how do we respond with compassion instead of force when the crisis involves someone’s mental health?”.
Many would be surprised to know that I have first hand experience with the police during a crisis. In Toronto, in 2003 I had a psychotic event. My husband, Michael called 911. The police showed up quickly, but they didn’t believe I had a serious mental health condition. They accused me of using drugs. I didn’t want to go anywhere with them, and was waiting for the ambulance to arrive—but it didn’t seem to be coming.
Michael tried to explain that this was a medical matter and that I needed to be taken care of by paramedics, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The police showed no compassion to either of us. They did not try to reason with me but instead barged forward on the faulty assumption that I was strung out on drugs. As I resisted going with them, one police officer stood between Michael and me while the other dragged me kicking and screaming up the stairs to the main floor of the condo. The police officer told Michael in a very unsympathetic tone that he needed to stay back and out of the way because this was now a police matter. When the police officer dragged me to the top of the stairs, my screams turned primal, as he had me on the ground with his knee digging into my back, twisting my arm painfully behind it. At that point, the police officer accused me of assaulting him, forcefully handcuffed me and shoved me into the back of the police car. They whisked me away without advising Michael where they were taking me.
I was taken to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre to be admitted. But when we arrived, I refused admittance. The intake person said there was nothing she could do for me if I didn’t want to be admitted. The police put me back into the car and tried another hospital, but I refused admittance again. Judging that this would be a pattern, but not wanting to take me home either, they drove me to the downtown Toronto police station instead and put me behind bars in a holding cell. Meanwhile, Michael was frantically trying to find out where they had taken me. By the time he arrived at Sunnybrook, we had left. When Michael arrived and found out that I had refused admittance, he took off on a wild goose chase to find me. It took persistence, patience and detective work to find out where I was.
The night I spent in the holding cell was an unreal experience. I couldn’t understand why the police officer had cut the elastic out of my pants or whose clothes I was wearing (Michael had found me in the fetal position, naked in the corner of my room rocking myself – so he had dressed me but I was unaware of that and confused with the clothes I had on). I was not given any medication or sedatives. I was left with my own delusional, psychotic mind to try to make sense of where I was and what was happening to me. I was frightened and lost, felt powerless, and was not being listened to. I was unwell and in need of love, care and compassion that I wasn’t getting in the police environment.
Going manic is an experience that is profoundly difficult to describe to someone who has not experienced it. To date, I have not seen it depicted properly in any Hollywood movie. What I can attest to is even in the midst of psychosis, the “normal” person is still there behind the delusions; there are moments of clarity and normalcy as you oscillate in and out of madness.
Although I didn’t fully understand what was happening to me, I knew I didn’t belong in a jail cell. In the morning, I had to appear before a judge. Michael worked with the Crown attorney to convince the judge that I needed medical attention. This was the day of his convocation and graduation. His family had flown in to be part of it. And Michael missed it. He missed all of it. His father understood that he was doing what a medical professional should—he was caring for me.
After I was finally allowed to leave the police station, I was taken by the police to Toronto General Hospital, and this time, I agreed to be admitted. But it still wasn’t going to be smooth sailing. The handcuffs were replaced with a straitjacket. I was left strapped to the bed in the middle of the emergency admitting area, as there were no beds available in the emergency room or the psychiatric ward. I was not treated with dignity, like a human being should be—more like a wild animal. When the MD came near me to inject me with haloperidol (an antipsychotic), I flew into uncontrollable convulsions, which made it extremely difficult for him to inject me despite the fact that I was tied down.
On top of that, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS ) epidemic was raging at the time, so I was treated by MDs who seemed to be wearing space suits, which was disorienting in my state. Also, due to SARS , Michael was not allowed to visit me because he had already set foot in the lobby of Sunnybrook, and the health system in Toronto was working in overdrive at the time to try to prevent the spread of SARS between hospitals. If he had stayed outside at Sunnybrook, he would have been able to visit me at Toronto General, but because he had set one foot past the emergency room doors, he was deemed at risk for SARS and was denied access to the next hospital he visited.
Upon being discharged from the hospital, I had to appear in court to avoid a criminal record because the police officer had brought an assault charge against me. I don’t recall assaulting anyone, but I do recall being treated with unnecessary physical force by the police officer. To this day, an area of my neck and back remains traumatized from being forced into the police car against my will. Thankfully, when I appeared before the judge, he was very empathetic and compassionate, and threw the charge out. Upon recounting this episode, I now regret that I did not file a formal complaint with the Toronto Police Service for the way I had been treated.
Recalling this incident makes me think of the young woman in BC who was recently dragged through a hallway and had her head stepped on by an RCMP officer during a “wellness check” (warning: intense video in link), and countless others like her. I think about the recent deaths of Ejaz Choudry, Chantel Moore, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and D’Andre Campbell, during police intervention during a mental health crisis. I think of all the police interventions that don’t make the news but instead leave a person who is genuinely having a mental health episode feeling like they’ve committed a crime, like they are bad, and therefore carry needless shame, something even more damaging to their hurting souls.
Although this is perhaps a topic for another book, my treatment during manic episodes has led me to believe that police officers in most cities need much more training than they seem to be getting in how to respond properly to people who are mentally ill. I have nothing but praise for the other first responders who have had to deal with me over the years (firefighters, paramedics), but the police have been the opposite of compassionate, understanding and patient. This needs to change. Even the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), also called for police to be removed from leading “this important work” of mental health crisis intervention.
Thankfully, there are some new joint mobile program initiatives in place in many major Canadian cities that require a mental health worker to respond to certain crisis calls with the police, and these have lead to significant reduction in arrests for people in mental health crisis. But this is just the beginning. It is important to emphasize that these initiatives need to be integrated into a broader strategic approach for all police agencies and, more broadly, the way we see and understand mental health crises as a society.
More is needed. Now. Today. By sharing this with you I hope to shed light on the fact that change is still needed. The above incident happened to me in 2003. Let’s hope by 2023, we can have made positive and necessary advances in caring for those experiencing a mental health crisis.