When I was in my 20's for three years, I worked as a residential counsellor in an organization committed to supporting the individual dreams and goals of adults with intellectual disabilities. Each of the three people who lived in the home where I worked was classified as extremely high needs—each of them had a combination of profound to severe developmental delays, mental health diagnoses and other medical concerns. Staff to client ratios were two-to-three in-house and one-to-one for outings to support the safety and wellbeing of both the residents and the staff.
My work as a residential counsellor was both extremely rewarding and, at times, challenging. Often playful, there was a lot of music, crafting and adventure. With our three clients, we watched Barney & Friends, Michael Jackson videos and supported the cultivation of a particular approach to being cool. Other times, things were difficult.
The combination of challenges our clients faced was significant, so the responsibility on us, as their caregivers, was enormous. Our house housed the residents with the highest needs in the organization—meaning that if we could not support them, they would be moved locked wards. The kinds of places we’d like to think no longer exist. This was a responsibility that we, the permanent staff, did not take lightly. We were the threshold between life in a house that fostered inclusion, a home where their interests were prioritized, and a state of prison-like hospitalization.
This task of supporting the freedom of vulnerable people involved being the responder in moments of crisis that sometimes turned violent. It is with caution that I share that one of our residents, a person nearly twice my size and cognitively 18 months old, had moments most readily understood in lay-terms as toddler-like temper tantrums. If you have ever been around a toddler in the throes of a tantrum, then you can appreciate both the intensity and the physicality of these circumstances.
With a great deal of empathy and a little training, I, like the other staff members, was able to support this person. I supported this person through crisis, into the exhaustion that inevitably follows and back into the flow of day to day life. I did this more times than I could count over the course of the three years I worked in that house. In these innumerable interactions, the number of times that I resorted to violence or caused any harm was zero. Zero.
Should the police be first responders for mental health issues?
In a word, no. Let’s consider present-day Toronto. Twice in the last month, emergency services were called to support a family member in distress and instead of support, these people died as a result of their encounters with police. Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Indigenous-Black woman active in her church community, fell to her death off her 24th-floor balcony immediately following the arrival of four police officers. Family members report that Regis called out to her mother for help just before her death. Her mother was just a few feet away in the hallway outside her apartment. Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old father of four who did not speak English and feared the police, was shot and killed by police, while his family pleaded to speak with him, to be allowed to help de-escalate. In both cases, multiple armed officers of the peace were confronted with one person in crisis. The officers did not bring peace.
Across Canada, there is mounting awareness of the devastating consequences of having police perform so-called wellness checks. Earlier this month, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman from the Tia-o-qui Frist Nation Near Tofino BC was shot and killed by Edmonston, New Brunswick Police on a wellness check. And yesterday video footage of an RCMP officer stepping on nursing student, Mona Wang’s head during a wellness check in January of this year.
Just yesterday, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) released a statement clearly explaining that Mental Health is a Health issue, that people experiencing a mental health crisis require health care, not policing, and pointing to the need for early intervention to prevent escalation. Those in crisis require support and empathy. There is ample evidence that police forces are not equipped to provide this.
Major cities move to reduce police funding.
These events, in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the rising momentum of the anti-racist movement have added weight to existing calls to defund the police.
In Toronto, for example, City Counsellors Josh Mattlow and Kristen Wong-Tam have put forward a motion for a 10% budget reduction. The proposal would have the police budget reduced from $1.22 billion to $1.1 billion, freeing up $122 million for programs including:
· community-led alternatives to policing and the criminal justice system
· anti-racism education
· programs identified in the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy
· affordable housing
· tenants’ defence fund
· skills training and employment counselling
· food security.
In Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority has voted to disband the police and create a new system of public safety in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. New York is disbanding its plain-clothes anti-crime unit, and Los Angeles city leaders have advanced a proposal to reduce the hiring of sworn officers by half in the upcoming year.
It seems that 2020 is the year that calling for the police to be defunded is no longer radical.
If you are a Toronto resident and support the motion to reallocate 10% of the police budget towards community and social programs, please contact your city counsellor to let them know before the vote on June 29, 2020. If you live elsewhere, take steps to understand what is happening in your region.
As the statement from CAMH points out, transformative change is needed because people with mental health issues deserve better. My experience as a residential counsellor tells me that this is possible. As we forge a new way forward, let’s ensure that we cultivate a supportive system conducive to resilience and flourishing.