Police need training in mental health

Posted on July 28, 2014 in Child & Family Delivery System

TheStar.com – Opinion/Readers’ Letters – Re: Fix police culture, but repair the system, July 26
Jul 28 2014.   Tracey Young

As a registered social worker I find Royson James’ statements that “cops are social workers, with guns” offensive and ill-informed. Police are not “de facto” social workers and they never will be.

While police officers have become first responders in the crisis of under-resourced services for those suffering from mental illness, social workers play a very, very different role in the lives of people in need of support, and in society, than police officers.

Social workers have a distinct education, professional knowledge base and skillset, which enables us to provide care and support to the most vulnerable people in society, by working in collaboration with clients, and others toward positive change.

Police officers’ role is to keep the peace, to serve and protect and ensure that individuals who have committed potential offenses under the Criminal Code of Canada are dealt with in a fair and just manner.

If police officers involved in the Sammy Yatim case had even an iota of the education and training social workers receive, a sick and fragile young man would be alive today and a family would not be mourning the tragic loss of their loved one.

One of the lessons of this tragedy is that Toronto police officers, and those across Canada, require training in mental health and how to deal with individuals in acute mental health crisis.

As the social safety net, including mental health systems of care, continues to be ripped apart in Canada due to a lack of governmental vision and leadership and underfunding, police officers will continue to be the first responders in the mental health crisis gripping cities.

As a social worker, I call on law enforcement leaders in Toronto, and across Canada, to begin to find ways to educate, inform and provide police officers with the tools they need to become more effective and humane in working with individuals who are experiencing severe mental health challenges. This kind of training will not only lead to some degree of culture change, I suspect it will also provide increased awareness of the mental health issues that many law enforcement officers suffer from due to the nature of their work.

This may also lead to the kind of culture change that must occur within the policing culture of Canada so those who serve and protect receive the mental health support and help they require to prevent other tragedies from happening.

Tracey Young, Vancouver

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2 Responses to “Police need training in mental health”

  1. Dear Editor
    Re: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editors/2014/07/28/police_need_training_in_mental_health.html

    I agree in todays’ fast pace society police officers play an essential role and provide assistance in situations. When looking at the full picture there appears to be a gap in the system. Whether it is a mental health issue or not; in the case of Sammy Yatim, the circumstances of that evening turned out unfavourable. Mental illness is apparent and an obstacle in our society, this has dramatically increased due to hereditary, biological and environmental factors. Facts state 20% of individuals will experience a mental illness during their lifespan and 80% will be affected by a mental illness in people they know such as family, friends or co-workers. Alarmingly, for these reasons, as a Social Worker student, there should be an obligation to educate law enforcement officers further in this area so they are not ill-equipped to deal with individuals suffering from a mental illness. If I as a Social Work student am obligated to maintain a standard by expanding my education to advance my skillset and knowledge to work with a diverse and vulnerable population, so I do no harm, then why is it not policy that police officers are not held to the same standard.
    If policies were implemented in law enforcement and through an educational process as well as strategies to enhance their awareness of mental illnesses incidents may be avoidable. This could possibly teach them to stop, breathe and evaluate the situation before using unnecessary force.

    Lorna Raycraft
    BSW Student, Laurentian University

  2. Lisa St. Louis

    In response to the article “Police need training in mental health” posted by Tracey Young; a registered social worker, I am on board with the concept that as police officer it is necessary, as part of training to be educated on the topic of mental illness. Personally, I believe that Royson James’ statement “cops are social workers, with guns” is the truth. Police officers are now expected to some degree take on the role of a social worker. The role of police officer is to keep the peace, serve and protect, however, my question is, “Is it the police officers duty now to act as a social worker? I do agree that it should be a requirement during training that they have an awareness about mental illness as first responders. As it is now, mental illness training is available for police officers but not required for training in becoming an police officer. I do believe that, as police officers, they are already burden with cases, such as break and enters, drug bust, domestic assault, murder, and not to mention the on going sex trade business, which is on going. This is another social issue in which they need to be trained in looking for signs of people who are victimized. According to a research article from “Crime and Justice, Health Care, Human Rights, Prisons, Top Stories”, In 2o12, there were 10 times as many ill persons in jails and prisons than in State hospitals; that’s 35,000 mentally ill patients hospitalized and 356,000 mentally ill inmates in prison. Yes, It would make a huge difference if police officers where aware of the signs of mental illness in that they could direct individuals with mental illness towards services that could assist them with the proper services.

    I say all this, because, I do not believe that if police officers had full training in mental illness that there would be less inmates with mental illness incarcerated. This needs to be addressed at the federal government level; Create more jobs for social workers to respond on scene and take over. But why create a position such as that, when one can just add it to an already existing position, like police officers. Sadly, it’s all about “less is best”. Where can one save money? In stead of creating more positions; social work positions, we will add it to the role of the police officers, in that they can assist the individual to the hospital if needed and in a severe crisis, stand watch until the client is released. I ask myself, is that the role of the officer of a social worker? Let us be more concerned about the welfare of a human being; mind body and soul, rather than cutting cost and increasing the workload of an already existing position. It is really up to the federal government to look at this issue through an individual’s lens rather then a cost effective lens.


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