Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mental health strategy still seems elusive

An opinion piece published in today's edition of The Chronicle Herald:
By Marilla Stephenson (pictured)

What’s the difference between "excited delirium" and "autonomic hyperarousal state?"

Not much. In fact, in the provincial government’s response to the Hyde Inquiry report, the second term is used as a replacement for the first.

The inquiry, headed last year by provincial court Judge Anne Derrick, studied the death of Howard Hyde, a Dartmouth man who died in custody in 2007 at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth. Hyde suffered from mental illness and the cause of his death was initially identified by a coroner as "excited delirium."

Derrick rejected that as a "red herring." She found that Hyde died as a result of a restraint technique used on him by guards during a struggle.

Hyde had been repeatedly shocked with a stun gun during his 30 hours in custody. Derrick found that while the use of the stun gun did not cause Hyde’s death, the repeated shocks contributed to his deteriorating mental state.

Derrick’s report also strongly called for improved training for law enforcement officers who come in contact with people suffering from mental illness. The judge painted a clear path towards the use of de-escalation techniques in advance of the use of stun guns.

But the province seems to be struggling to find the right balance between public safety issues and the use of stun guns by officers. It has yet to finalize its guidelines for stun gun use, though Justice Minister Ross Landry said Thursday they will be released within a few weeks.

The minister did not explain why there has been a delay in issuing the guidelines or why, if only a few more weeks were needed, the province’s response to the inquiry report was not delayed so the documents could be released together.

But it speaks volumes that the use of the stun guns has already dropped by over 70 per cent since Hyde’s death in 2007, as The Canadian Press reported on Thursday.

In addressing what is now being described as an "autonomic hyperarousal state," the report released Thursday did not rule out using a stun gun on a person who may be mentally ill. But plenty of work remains to be done on the training side of the equation.

"Law enforcement officers must have appropriate tools to assist them in maintaining public safety," says the report. "At the same time, people living with mental illness may already be experiencing a high level of anxiety and the use of restraint could escalate the situation.

"The province and policing partners agree that the use of conducted energy weapons should only occur when a person’s behaviour is aggressive or violent and could harm the person or the public or the police officer. Additional direction is required regarding the restraint of individuals with mental illness."

The delay in providing that direction is not explained but Landry is clearly not comfortable with the current level of knowledge and training.

"It’s very difficult in situations where . . . there’s a high level of disturbance for the police officer to determine whether the person is suffering from mental illness," the minister told reporters on Thursday after the response was released.

In fairness to police, officers are often called on to make very quick decisions about the use of force in highly charged situations. But the death of Howard Hyde, among other cases, provides a reminder of the responsibilities that accompany the use of force, including the use of stun guns and other various forms of restraint.

There are federal guidelines available to help officers make those judgment calls and the province has said its stun gun rules will consider the federal document as well as expert advice provided by a panel of psychiatrists.

Derrick was clearly on the right track in emphasizing the need for much better levels of training. And in fairness to the province, some progress has already been made in addressing areas of concern raised in the inquiry report.

But the wheels continue to grind slowly towards the judge’s most important recommendation, adopting a provincial mental health strategy. The government is still waiting for a report from stakeholders.

It has been nearly two years since the NDP formed government and promises to improve mental health policies and services are growing stale.

(mstephenson@herald.ca)
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