‘Wellness Checks’ And The Police: Why Doesn’t An Emergency Mental Health Team Exist In Toronto?

By Sam Burton

If you have been paying attention, then you are aware of the influx of news stories surrounding the tragic deaths of people of colour and black individuals by the hands of police officers. This unfortunately though, is not a new problem in the United States and Canada—a CBC investigation found that there have been 461 fatal police encounters in Canada between 2000 and 2017.

These deaths have proportionately affected black and indigenous people more than any other race in Canada. The very same report found that more than 70 per cent of the victims of police brutality and violence suffered from health issues and/or substance use problems. 

A plethora of failed examples of police participating in wellness checks that is meant to prevent harm have risen in the media and contributed greatly to the Black Lives Matter movement and the call to defund the Toronto police. The cases of D’Andre Campbell, Ejaz Choudry, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, (all of whom were people of colour, Black, or indigenous), and many more that we do not know about, are sad and repetitive stories that pose a vital question: who do we call when someone is in crisis?

The answer in Canada is twofold: you can either call 911, eliciting the police for a ‘wellness check’ or take the person to the ER. But when looking at the facts, neither are very reliable or comforting options for some people of colour, indigenous and black folks.

The concept of wellness checks expanded the role of police officers as frontline mental health responders over the past 30 years, according to a 2009 article written by the Canadian Mental Health Association. According to the article, a person who is having a mental health crisis is marked as an EDP—an ‘emotionally distressed person’—and the responding officers can divert the person into the health care system, or arrest them. 

The Mental Health Act in Ontario gives the police officer the legal authority to detain someone and involuntarily bring them into psychiatric care. Police do have the option to divert a mental health crisis to The Mobile Crisis Intervention Team in larger cities such as Toronto and Ottawa.

While the description in itself sounds reasonable and flowery, recent examples have proven that the judgement call being made by police officers are ill-informed, and often shaped by systemic racism. In some situations, there is a lack of a compassionate approach and the presence of those who are trained to empathically listen and deescalate the situation. The dispatch team chooses whether or not the MCIT is required, and the police always accompany them. They possess the ultimate authority within the interaction. 

Hussein N. Shire shared his experience as a black man and the innate abuse of power that accompanies wellness checks during a terrifying experience on Juneteenth of this year.

“Like most Canadians, I knew very little about wellness checks. I did not know that it could happen without your consent and that it, theoretically, gives anyone the power to unleash multiple armed officers to your door. I cannot begin to describe the nerve-wracking feeling of being gaslit in my own home by two heavily armed police officers,” said Shire. “It was a waking nightmare so illogical, so bizarre, that it felt like a sick joke.”

Two heavily armed police officers arrived on Shire’s doorstep early that Friday morning, claiming that someone within the apartment had called them about a woman in distress. Because of COVID-19, Shire had not allowed anyone within his apartment beyond his landlord and repairman since March. The officers forced themselves inside his apartment, claiming that they did not need a warrant when Shire asked for one. 

Entering the ER willfully is the only option many Canadians know of when experiencing a mental health crisis. This is due to the absence of awareness of other crisis options, such as temporary beds or crisis lines within a particular region. Mental health patients are also treated inequitably, as many cases of anecdotal evidence suggest.

Heather Stuart, an anti-stigma researcher with Queen’s University noted that hospitals have a “blood and broken bones first and mental health second” mindset. Stuart notes that this mindset and the resulting discrimination that persons with mental health issues face may not be a deliberate attempt to discriminate, but may instead be ‘just the way the system is set up.’

The answers to these problems is certainly going to take a long time to figure out, but essentially doable. Could defunding the police, and allocating integrated resources to help those experiencing mental health issues, be crazy enough that it just might work?

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