It is just one of those days. I am fed-up with the lip service and hypocrisy when it comes to mental health in Canada. On the heels of tragic events in the United States, the focus has shifted to our own tragedies and arguments over the spectre of endemic racism in Canada.
In the last few days, Ottawa Police Chief Sloly provided a heartfelt commitment to 'fix his own house' even as a young Indigenous woman was shot dead by police in New Brunswick during a wellness check. The Indigenous Minister – Marc Miller – has voiced his outrage, but the question remains: How do we stop the perversion of responding to distressed people, especially marginalized people, through threats of violence? First, we must name these police interactions for what they are – public safety risk assessment and containment interventions. Stop perverting the term wellness checks! There is no universe whereby an armed team of police in paramilitary gear can be construed as agents of care.
I have treated many police officers over the years. Most of them are considerate and good people and I have also seen many others who are misogynistic, openly racist, and discriminatory, and who thrive on the prospect of knocking heads and kicking down doors. In fact, in the interests of veteran welfare, we stopped calling police because they often made matters much worse. When law enforcement members have little regard or awareness of their own mental health, they cannot be expected to respond effectively to the psychological needs of another person in distress.
Police and public safety organizations have been studied extensively in Canada over the past several years. Nearly 45 percent of them have mental health problems resulting from things like workplace intimidation, bullying, threats, micromanagement, and overwork. Officers tell me repeatedly that their organizations are toxic and that their leaders cannot be trusted. It is a fantasy to believe that the effects of these environments on members do not spill over into their interactions with the public.
I am not anti-police by any means. I believe they are placed in an untenable position as both enforcer and social worker. Canada’s longstanding ignorance and indifference towards mental health by federal and provincial politicians means that deferring to law and order mandates to control people outranks any effort to address mental health needs. We have ample research and inquiries telling us that mental distress reaches into histories of childhood abuse, poverty, addiction, family violence, racism and social inequities, and from toxic workplaces. Time to stop the empty platitudes!
Policing, and its paramilitary ethos, centers on taking control from people and reacting with force to perceived threats which is exactly the wrong thing to do in most cases. I agree, Chief Sloly, police agencies must get their own houses in order before they can ever decide they are the ones to put other houses in order. Too many people are dying needlessly!
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.