The police don’t have a good reputation when it comes to dealing with individuals with mental health crises. Police encounters have repeatedly proven to be particularly dangerous for people with mental illness, with these encounters often ending in injury and failing to provide the involved individuals the mental help they need. Even so, a recent study has revealed that university health centers in the Ontario region still rely on law enforcement for emergency mental-health transfers.
The study, whose findings were reported in the “Canadian Medical Association Journal,” shows that health practitioners often prefer to call the police, even though they regularly use physical restraints and their altercations often end in injury.
With suicidal behavior and self-harm rates among Canadian university students on the rise, investigators led by Juveria Zaheer, University of Toronto assistant professor of psychiatry, sought to investigate how physicians in Ontario-area universities responded to students in mental distress.
The Ontario Mental Health Act requires doctors who believe a patient presents a high risk of self-harm to fill out a Form 1 Application by Physician for Psychiatric Assessment to authorize their transfer to an ER for emergency psychiatric evaluation. Although the overall number of mandated mental health transfers for university students in the Ontario area has increased since 2014, there was little data on how these transfers were actually being facilitated. Mental health transfers are an under-researched topic, the researchers wrote in the study, stating that this was just part of a larger gap in knowledge on how people with mental health distress were transported to hospitals.
All the physicians involved in the study described how involving law enforcement in mental health transfers broke the students’ trust in them, destroyed the therapeutic relationship and incentivized the students to avoid going to the clinic in the future. One physician said that being handcuffed and walked out of the building into a waiting police car seemed “brutal and traumatic” for the patient and showed that the environment was neither caring nor supportive.
The use of law enforcement in these transfers has been controversial. One study participant reports that the police used restraints nine out of ten times, stating that the experience could be quite traumatic for patients.
While some health professionals say the use of police is integral to ensuring the patient’s safety, that sentiment isn’t widely supported. Mental health advocates argue that law enforcement and their use of physical restraints traumatizes and stigmatizes people with mental illness. Furthermore, they say that it perpetuates the notion that people with mental illness are criminals.
The very fact that the police have been persistently complicit in violence against minorities and marginalized communities underscores the need for a systematic review of their involvement in mental health transfers.
Most of the surveyed physicians relied on law enforcement because of limited resources, staff shortages and liability concerns. This reliance, the researchers concluded, contributes to a deadly cycle of stigmatization, marginalization, violence, fear and distrust for mental health patients, especially those from systematically marginalized communities.
What would be of great help is a new generation of medications for mental health illnesses? Companies such as Silo Pharma Inc. (OTCQB: SILO) are on the hunt for novel treatments that can address mental health issues in a way that offers lasting results and supports patients, hopefully decreasing emergency mental health situations.
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