Crash Course in Dark Thoughts

Teach­ing po­lice to un­der­stand men­tal ill­ness

The Walrus - - EDITOR’S NOTE - By jonathan kay

On March 27, 1997, a fiftyeight-year-old schiz­o­phrenic woman named Lu­cia Piovesan stabbed two-year-old Zachary An­ti­dormi to death in a Hamil­ton, On­tario, al­ley. The shock­ing act for­ever changed the face of polic­ing.

Piovesan — who be­lieved that her own dead son’s soul was trapped in­side An­ti­dormi — had dis­played signs of men­tal ill­ness for three decades. She left bags of fe­ces on neigh­bours’ doorsteps. She told her MPP that a priest had poi­soned her son with an Aids-tainted host. Some­times, she stood on her porch and threat­ened neigh­bours. The po­lice would stop by, but noth­ing much came of their vis­its. As an in­quest later con­cluded, “The of­fi­cers at­tend­ing the calls were not alerted to pre­vi­ous his­tory and ... re­lated each in­ci­dent as an iso­lated oc­cur­rence.”

The rec­om­men­da­tions that emerged from that in­quest be­came a blue­print for the mod­ern­iza­tion of po­lice prac­tices. Crit­i­cally, they in­cluded teach­ing of­fi­cers how to rec­og­nize “symp­toms of the most com­mon psy­chi­atric [con­di­tions]” and how to ap­proach “the han­dling of per­sons suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness.”

Twenty years ago, the treat­ment of emo­tion­ally dis­turbed Cana­di­ans of­ten rested on the snap judg­ment of what­ever con­sta­bles hap­pened to show up in a squad car. Many of­fi­cers saw deal­ing with the men­tally ill as a dis­trac­tion from real crime-fight­ing. But that has changed: the of­fi­cers I’ve en­coun­tered in my re­cent re­port­ing seem to un­der­stand men­tal ill­ness bet­ter than do some med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als.

Con­sider the po­lice force of Peel Re­gion, east of Toronto, which re­cently al­lowed me to sit in on its an­nual men­tal-health train­ing pro­gram. The ses­sions fo­cused on best prac­tices for deal­ing safely and com­pas­sion­ately with those suf­fer­ing from schizophre­nia, autism, drug ad­dic­tion, post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, self­harm, and Alzheimer’s dis­ease, among other con­di­tions. A schiz­o­phrenic man named Robert de Boyrie told us what it was like to hear voices. (An adap­ta­tion of his pre­sen­ta­tion ap­pears on page 61.) Then his mother spoke about her in­ter­ac­tions with po­lice dur­ing Robert’s crises, and how they could have been im­proved. Ex­perts ex­plained how to dis­tin­guish be­tween dan­ger­ous schiz­o­phrenic peo­ple — such as Piovesan — and the vast ma­jor­ity of suf­fer­ers, who pose no threat.

The speak­ers who ad­dressed the is­sue of se­nil­ity used role-play­ing meth­ods to demon­strate how con­fus­ing or­di­nary life can be for some el­derly peo­ple. We were tasked with pro­duc­ing a com­plex geo­met­ric form on the ba­sis of rapid-fire oral in­struc­tions — while teach­ing as­sis­tants dis­tracted us by shak­ing boxes of un­cooked pasta.

A woman named Christina Ja­balee de­scribed how her brother Michael, af­flicted with schizoaf­fec­tive dis­or­der, had bounced from hos­pi­tal gur­neys to po­lice cruis­ers and back again as his life spi­ralled to­ward sui­cide. (On the day he died, at twenty-five, Michael gave his hos­pi­tal meds to a stranger he met on a bus — be­cause the num­bers in the man’s tat­too seemed mean­ing­ful.) We heard from a First Na­tions woman who ex­plained that author­i­ties had ig­nored her com­plaints of be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted in a psy­chi­atric-care fa­cil­ity. And from a man who’d once threat­ened to kill his fa­ther so the po­lice would ar­rest him — and per­haps give him the help he needed. (At the time, he had just been thrown out of an emer­gency room and into a frozen De­cem­ber night.)

Our psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals are full, thanks to short-sighted gov­ern­ment poli­cies that treat men­tal-health is­sues as less ur­gent than, say, in­fec­tious dis­eases. Get­ting ar­rested is some­times the only thing that can save a men­tally ill per­son’s life. Or, as de Boyrie’s mother put it, “I’m lucky I had the po­lice to turn to, be­cause no one else in the sys­tem could help me get into the men­tal-health sys­tem.”

On the last day of train­ing, we work­shopped four po­lice-re­sponse sce­nar­ios with ac­tors from the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto’s stan­dard­ized pa­tient pro­gram. In the first, of­fi­cers con­fronted an in-cri­sis schiz­o­phrenic man who was shriek­ing and writhing un­der a ta­ble. In the se­cond, it was a man with Alzheimer’s dis­ease wan­der­ing a strip mall. In the third, a de­pressed mu­si­cian threat­en­ing to jump from a bal­cony. And in the fi­nal sce­nario, a woman who’d just lost her daugh­ter to child ser­vices and was about to slit her wrists. For­get the old stereo­types about ma­cho cop cul­ture: in each sit­u­a­tion, suc­cess meant en­sur­ing the safety of the cri­sis-stricken pro­tag­o­nist.

Dur­ing the Alzheimer’s sce­nario, one of the stu­dents grabbed the ac­tor too hard while try­ing to calm him down. “Re­mem­ber that ev­ery­thing you do can end up on Youtube,” the in­struc­tor told the class. “All it takes is one bad mo­ment to go vi­ral.”

It was a sober­ing vi­gnette. We jour­nal­ists have made a habit of judg­ing po­lice on the ba­sis of scan­dalous video clips. It’s easy to for­get that the vi­o­lence and abuse they por­tray are rare. Re­porters have a duty to hold cops ac­count­able when they hurt peo­ple — but they should also pay at­ten­tion to the im­por­tant work of­fi­cers do off-cam­era, help­ing the men­tally ill when they’re at their most vul­ner­a­ble.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.