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BC mental health agency CEO: People living with a mental illness are rarely violent

Final night of Vancouver public safety forum hears concerns over street disorder, crime, government inaction
Vancouver city council heard Tuesday more concerns about public safety at what was the second and final night of a forum on the topic.

People living with a mental illness are rarely violent and more likely to become victims than perpetrators of violence, the CEO of the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association told a public safety forum Tuesday at Vancouver city hall.

Jonathan Morris said studies have shown for years that most people with a mental illness are not violent and that most people who are violent do not have a mental illness.

“I live with a mental illness and I'm not violent,” Morris told city council on the second and final night of the forum. “I have people in my workplace who live with mental illnesses and they’re not violent.”

Morris shared his personal situation while stressing the importance for media and “influential leaders” to reduce the stigma of mental illness and its often incorrect link to violence.

Context is important, he said, when hearing reports of violent acts.

“Recognizing that mental illness is a catch-all doesn't describe the experience of everyone,” he said, noting that when a person with a mental illness is violent, systemic and social factors are usually involved.

“Sometimes violence happens because violence happens, and there's no root at the cause of that related to a mental illness of any kind.”

Added Morris: "I've seen social media posts that describe unprovoked stranger attacks appearing to be related to mental illness, and appearing is not good enough. If there are confirmed authoritative claims that untreated mental illness was absolutely a driver, then, yes, we need to investigate that and make that claim."

Chinatown, Gastown, West End

Morris was one of dozens of voices heard by council at the forum, which began April 28 and included presentations by city managers and Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, who was vocal about the need for the provincial government to better address social issues.

A common thread from speakers Tuesday was the lack of housing for vulnerable people and the need for more services for drug users and people living with a mental illness. Under-reporting of crime, frustration with street disorder and criticisms of the police and its budget were also points made over the four-and-a-half hours.

Chinatown, Gastown and the West End were neighbourhoods most mentioned by citizens.

'Needlessly suffer'

Robson Street resident and business owner Craig James said he has been exposed to more needles, human feces, garbage and people “drugged out” in front of his parking garage than he could ever dream of in his 15 years in the neighbourhood.

“While I appreciate the city and province is trying to tackle homelessness and help those with mental health challenges, the trickle-down effect has led to our local community being terrorized by one individual for months,” he said, then played an audio recording of a man screaming.

“As someone with [obsessive-compulsive personality disorder] and struggling with my mental health issues, I feel for people about their own difficulties. However, there comes a point when the actions of one can't be more important than the thousands who are left with little choice but to needlessly suffer.”

James said he has called the city’s 311 line, the police’s non-emergency line and spoken to police officers, who have told him Crown would not prosecute the man and that he would only end up returning to the neighbourhood.

“Two officers told me that when trying to police situations like this, they often receive so much blowback from the public and that they're worried about ending up getting trashed on Twitter if a video goes viral,” he said. “So they just don't get involved.”

'Sharp objects'

Eddie Emerman, who lives in a building on Carrall Street that he also manages, shared a similar story about a woman in his neighbourhood who has made it difficult for him and tenants to come and go from their homes.

Emerman said the woman has a place to live but has serious mental health and addiction issues that are not being treated.

“This woman continues to threaten everyone in the building with sharp objects,” he said.

“She blocks the apartment entrance doors, smokes crack, she screams, urinates, she's nude at times. People can't enter into the building. Many staff [of the business in the building] quit and tenants have moved out.”

Emerman said he wants to help the woman, noting she’s been arrested numerous times but then let out of jail to continue her same behaviour. He fears something violent will happen to her or someone else.

“I'm not sure how someone in this predicament is not institutionalized,” he said. “She does not seem capable of making decisions about getting or staying in care. Throwing her in jail is not the answer. This is happening all over the city.”

'I'm sick of hearing complaints'

Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, said he estimated he’s had 100 conversations over the last year with politicians, business operators and others about the deteriorating state of Gastown.

“All we're doing is complaining — I'm sick of hearing complaints, I'd like to see some real action happen,” Wargolet said. “We have businesses right now in our neighbourhood that are considering leaving Vancouver.”

Added Wargolet: “And for those who think that a broken window or graffiti is a victimless crime, it's not. There are small businesses who are just one broken window away from going out of business.”

'Put people on margins first'

Kit Rothschild of PACE Society, a peer-driven non-profit agency in the Downtown Eastside that seeks to reduce the harm and isolation associated with sex work through education, support and advocacy, told council she was worried businesses’ concerns are becoming more important to politicians than people in crisis.

“We need you to put people on the margins first, not business improvement associations,” said Rothschild, who was also critical of police, noting officers recently shot two men within a span of nine days in a building on Commercial Drive and at the Patricia Hotel on East Hastings Street; police have released few details and the Independent Investigations Office is investigating both shootings.

“We aren't asking for more car 87 programs [operated by police and psychiatric nurse]. We're asking for safety that does not rely on police. Many of us don't respect police.”

New York City

Meenakshi Mannoe of the PIVOT Legal Society shared similar points with council, emphasizing she was “profoundly interested in the safety of myself, my family, my community, and that includes unhoused community members who rely on public space.”

Addressing public safety, Mannoe added, must include addressing “the violence of structural racism and settler colonialism that's leading to disproportionate homelessness of Indigenous and Black people.”

Morris, meanwhile, pointed to New York City as an example of what leadership can look like on community-led response to crisis, with Mayor Eric Adams — a former police officer — recently announcing $55 million in non-police driven behavioral health teams.

“It’s a bold statement that civilian health and social responses can really swing that pendulum from relying upon police as the default mental health responder in the province, which I think all of us wants to move away from,” he said, noting similar pilot projects are operating on the North Shore, New Westminster and Victoria.

Random assaults

Police Chief Adam Palmer and chiefs before him have all been clear on the need for more mental health services.

In the meantime, police continue to answer calls where mental illness is involved, including assaults.

Palmer told the Vancouver Police Board in October 2021 that random assaults were at a level that he has not seen in his policing career.

At the time, the chief said police tracked 1,700 such incidents, or roughly four per day, between Sept. 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2021. Of those, 47 per cent involved a knife or some type of weapon, he said.

“I’ve been a police officer in this city for 34 years and I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” said Palmer, adding that 28 per cent of the suspects arrested were living with some form of mental illness.

City staff is expected to report back to council in June on what actions could be taken to further enhance public safety.