Canadian policing and mental health communities say more training is needed as officers across Canada are increasingly becoming the first line of contact for the mentally ill.

A new report released by The Mental Health Commission of Canada indicates there are more interactions between these two groups now than there were five to seven years ago.

The report says police organizations are doing a reasonable job of training officers for basic situations, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

A lack of treatment and support for those with mental illness, plus the stigma, mean police are often in a situation where they have to deal with the crisis.

"There has been significant interest amongst the police community to provide sufficient training for police personnel both to improve their understanding of mental illness and to equip them to respond appropriately to persons with mental illness," said study co-author Terry Coleman in a statement. "This report is intended to be a blueprint for a comprehensive training and education curriculum."

The report titled “TEMPO: Police Interactions – A report towards improving interactions between police and people living with mental health problems,” was released Wednesday at the annual Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police meeting in Victoria.

It is a collaborative effort between officers and mental health professionals.

"This issue is on the mind of every police leader in Canada," said Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill, who is also the CACP's newly-elected president. "We are very optimistic that police services throughout Canada will use this as a framework to assess and improve their own training practices."

Public safety Minister Steven Blaney said officers shouldn't be expected to solve all of these problems.

"As important as police training in matters of mental health is, police are not doctors, and should never be expected to act as such," he told reporters at the conference Wednesday.

"Healthcare is the explicit responsibility of the provinces, and we look to our provincial partners to provide the necessary intervention and assistance for the mentally ill – before they encounter the criminal justice system. I cannot emphasize this point more strongly."

Key training/education recommendations include:

  • That police learning be designed and delivered by a combination of police personnel, adult educators, mental health professionals, mental health advocacy organizations and people living with mental illness.
  • More uniform inclusion of non-physical interventions (verbal communications, interpersonal skills, de-escalation, defusing and calming techniques) in use-of-force training.
  • The incorporation of anti-stigma education to challenge the attitudinal barriers that lead to discriminatory action.
  • That provincial governments establish policing standards that include provisionsfor mandatory basic and periodic police training qualification/requalification for interactions with people with mental illness.
  • Provision of training on the role of police, mental health professionals, family and community supports in encounters with persons with mental illness.
  • That training provides a better understanding of the symptoms of mental illness and the ability to assess the influence a mental illness might be having on a person's behaviour and comprehension.