Mental health calls tax police resources

Shuswap: Region sees a 66 per cent increase, professionals can not point to a reason for upswing

Staff Sgt. Scott West

Staff Sgt. Scott West

An RCMP report that mental health-related calls from April through June have risen 66 per cent, from 46 last year to 136 in the same period this year, sparked concern at the Salmon Arm council meeting on Monday.

In his quarterly report, Salmon Arm detachment Staff Sgt. Scott West advised he has been in contact with Shuswap Lake General Hospital and the local Canadian Mental Health Association office in an attempt to find a reason for the large spike that is stretching resources.

“There is nothing they can put their finger on,” he said, noting mental health–related calls often involve three RCMP members and require trips to the hospital. “They get us through triage as fast as possible but, on average, we spend three hours or more on each of these calls – if they do not involve complex issues or weapons.”

While the bulk of the calls do not involve weapons, high-risk incidents do happen occasionally and necessitate a large expenditure in officer hours.

It is a policing issue that is being considered at the provincial level, he says.

“In these instances, our intent is to handle these matters sensitively while maintaining public safety and the welfare of the person we are trying to help,” West says. “Our end goal is to get the person to medical assistance to help them during this time of crisis.”

Peter du Toit, Interior Health’s acute care area director for the Thompson/Cariboo/Shuswap, says it is typical to have an increased demand for mental health services at this time of year.

“That’s largely attributable to a lot of out-of-town people coming here; it starts as soon as the weather improves here,” du Toit says. “And transients, it’s one of the areas of focus for our community care people.”

He says when people arrive at the hospital for mental health services, they are well triaged and cared for in concert with Vernon and Kelowna.

But two councillors who are also teachers, are very concerned, not only by the number of mental-health issues they are seeing in schools, but the same lack of a definitive cause.

“There is no specific age, but we are seeing anxiety issues starting at five years of age,” says Alan Harrison, Hillcrest School principal. “Kindergarten teachers are certainly working with mental-health challenges with their students; there’s no doubt about it and in numbers that are new in the past three or four years in those ages.”

The main issue is acute anxiety, which Harrison makes behaviour unpredictable. It is behaviour that pushes kids away and makes for isolation issues as well.

“I think probably the biggest challenge for public schools is managing anxiety,” he says. “It sounds soft (anxiety), but if you get 13 and 14-year-olds cutting… it’s a frequent phenomenon and it’s provincewide. You have to ask, why are kids cutting themselves? What’s going on?”

Coun. Ken Jamieson teaches at Shuswap Middle School, with a population of 600 students.

“Something profound is happening with our kids,” he says, noting he has seen the worrying (mental health) changes in the last five to eight years and that manifests in many different ways – not attending school, non-compliance and/or aggressive behaviour, for example.

“For the first few years of teaching, I could say the experience I had as a boy were mirrored in the students, but not now,” he says of his 20-year teaching career.

Following the council meeting, Mayor Nancy Cooper and Harrison discussed the accessibility of unfiltered information.

“Kids have access to information, images and ideas that kids in no other generation have had access to,” said Harrison.

Like others, Cooper is concerned there seems to be no concrete or single cause for the extreme anxiety crossing all ages.

“If there was a common cause, then we could be proactive,” she says, noting that while she is concerned for people and their families who are dealing with the issues, the many policing hours spent dealing with mental-health calls are a cost to the city.