A death review panel says police are a “de facto” part of the mental health system.

This comes after the panel examined the deaths of people who died within a day of an interaction with police in British Columbia. The panel came to the conclusion that policing should be added into the provincial mental health strategy. It says that there are more assessment and training opportunities that exist to accomplish that.

The report, called “Opportunities for Different Outcomes – Police: A crucial component of B.C.’s mental health system” outlined three areas in which the panel believes that deaths can be reduced and public safety improved.

Those include improving coordination between health services and police who have an interaction with someone having a mental health crisis, increasing access to mental health services, and learning from previous police interactions with the public. The recommendations from the panel are aimed at preventing death in similar circumstances and improving public safety overall.

The review included 127 deaths between 2013 and 2017. It found that of those who died many were chronic users of alcohol or other drugs. That substance use was the main reason the police were called about the person in the first place. On top of that more than half showed signs of a mental health issue, many of the deaths happened in small or rural communities and while Indigenous people make up just six per cent of B.C.’s population, 20 per cent of the deaths were among Indigenous peoples.

The death review panel included 19 experts who are professionals with expertise in policing, policing oversight, public health, health services, mental health and addictions, and Indigenous health.

“Police in B.C. are responding to about 74,000 incidents annually involving mental health, and 18,000 of those fall under the Mental Health Act,” panel chair Michael Egilson said. “These are situations where police officers de-escalate crisis situations and assess, triage and transport persons for emergency care to health services or to cells.

“We need to drive home the point that the police have become part of the mental health system and that their role needs to be acknowledged, supported and incorporated into the larger provincial mental health and addictions strategy.”