In the last three months at least five people have been killed by the police during wellness checks for people in mental health crisis. Their names are D’Andre Campbell, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, and Ejaz Choudry. Here is a timeline of what has occurred:

April 6: D’Andre Campbell was murdered by police in Brampton after he called for help as he suffered from schizophrenia. He was 26 years old and a Black man.

May 27: Regis Korchinski-Paquet was in crisis and her family called for help to connect her with mental health services. During the wellness check by police, she fell 24 stories from her balcony to her death in Toronto. She was 29 years old and of mixed identity including Black and Indigenous.

June 4: Chantel Moore was murdered by police in Edmundston, New Brunswick during a wellness check. She was a mother of one child, an Indigenous woman, and a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation.

June 12: Rodney Levi was murdered by the RCMP. He was a 48-year-old Indigenous man and a member of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation, who stated they knew he was trying to get help for mental health issues.

June 20: Ejaz Choudry was murdered by Peel Regional Police during a wellness check after his family reached out to a non-emergency line for help, as he had schizophrenia and was in crisis. He was a member of the Muslim community, 62 years old, and a father of four.

All of them should still be alive today. All of them should have been connected to the mental health services that they and their families were seeking. Widespread outrage and grief has resulted in several protests to demand justice, led by Black Lives Matter (BLM) in Toronto, Indigenous communities in New Brunswick, and the Muslim community in Peel Region.

These recent cases are not anomalies, but rather expose a deeply disturbing systemic racism and violence towards people with mental health issues. It was not that long ago that Andrew Loku and Sammy Yatim were killed by the police in Toronto while each was suffering a mental health crisis. A report from the CBC stated that from 2001 to 2017, police used deadly force 461 times, and 70 percent of victims were people suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems. In addition to this harrowing statistic, the report stated that Indigenous and Black people are overwhelmingly overrepresented in these police killings. To add insult to injury, police officers who commit these crimes are almost never convicted. The Toronto Star reported that 97 percent of police crimes end up in exoneration. 

The increasing public outrage over the tragic deaths of people killed at the hands of the police during a mental health crisis is calling into question why the police have become de-facto front-line healthcare workers.  While there is no one definition or set of standard protocols for a “wellness check”, it is generally associated with situations when the police check in on someone whose mental health or well-being are of concern. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki reported that federal police receive close to 10,000 calls per month related to mental health crises. The Toronto Police Service responds to 30,000 calls annually for mental health assistance, and Peel Region Police have received between 5,000 to 6,300 calls over the past four years. 

Police receive very limited mental health training and do not have the skills or knowledge to recognize the signs and complex behaviour of a mental health crisis. A proper approach would require intensive clinical training, appropriate cultural responses, and accessible interpretation services to effectively de-escalate and connect people with mental health supports and services. There are many deep-rooted misconceptions about mental health that are often detrimental to crisis response. One of the most common myths is that people with mental health issues are likely to cause violence, yet most studies show that the opposite is true. People with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of violence. If a person is experiencing paranoia, they are likely to be scared and will try to find ways to protect themselves. Police ignorance often leads to a complete misreading of the situation, which officers then use to justify lethal force—for example, when a person in crisis is holding a pen knife because they are afraid. This ignorance is coupled with deep-seated bias, discrimination, and systemic racism, which results in more fatalities. Society desperately needs to get armed police out of crisis response.

In response to criticism, Toronto police developed Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCITs), in which mental health nurses and specially trained police officers are supposedly available to respond to crisis situations. But these teams are only available from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and are not allowed to respond to a crisis where a person has what is perceived to be a “weapon”. The MCITs are like an umbrella full of holes: useless precisely when they are needed. To make matters worse, the public cannot directly call this service; instead, it is used at the discretion of the police. It is also worth noting that the presence of police, even when accompanied by trained mental health professionals, can often be triggering for people typically targeted by police brutality, especially those from Black and Indigenous communities. The police presence is likely to deepen fear, and further escalate a crisis. 

When RCMP Commissioner Lucki stated that there is no systemic racism in the force, she conveniently forgot that the origins of the RCMP, and its forerunner the North West Mounted Police, are rooted in “taking care of the Indian problem”. The Mounties were set up to suppress Indigenous people and seize their land for the federal government’s construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the expansion of capitalism into the west. The RCMP also played a treacherous role in snatching Indigenous children from their families to place them in the residential schools. This has been cited as a key element in the genocide against Indigenous people in Canada.

For the Black community—who experience deeply rooted police harassment and brutality—systemic racism has resulted in a situation in which Black residents account for 70 percent of all cases of police shooting deaths in Toronto, despite representing only 8.8 percent of the city’s population. It is clear the police do not serve and protect the most vulnerable and oppressed in our society.

On June 23, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) posted a statement calling for an alternative to police for responding to wellness checks. A multitude of different agencies and activist groups are putting forward similar calls. The system is failing people with mental health and their families. It is a critical time to consider what can be done differently.

An emergency mental health service without police

An immediate demand is to remove the police from wellness checks and create a fully autonomous emergency mental health service that can respond to crisis calls, conduct assessments, and connect people with the appropriate supports. The funding for this new body should be redirected from the police budget, which is the largest expense for the City of Toronto at $1.13 billion, or 10.5 percent of the total municipal budget. This emergency mental health service should come from the communities they serve in coordination with trade unions in the health sector. There must be paid education to train specialists in the field: nurses, social workers, child and youth workers, and peer support workers who have the clinical knowledge, skill level, and experience to effectively respond to a mental health crisis.

This service should not be another state institution riddled with bureaucracy and strangled by underfunding, but must be democratically controlled by workers and representatives from the community. This is the only way to make sure that those in crisis receive culturally appropriate responses from people who look like them, plus all resources must be extended to provide a diverse range of language skills and interpretation. The time to invest in mental health and to place people’s well-being over inflated police budgets is now.

In addition to a community controlled mental health crisis response service we also fight for working class security teams responsible to the trade unions and other organizations of the oppressed. We fight to abolish the police, that enforce capitalist laws by violent means, and replace them with organs that promote the security and solidarity of the working class.

Mental health crisis in Canada

There is a mental health crisis in Canada. The CMHA reports that one in five Canadians will experience some form of mental health issue during their lifetime. In Ontario, there is an alarming increase of high school students (34 percent) who experience moderate to serious levels of anxiety and depression, and this statistic has only gone up since the economic crisis of 2008. Many youth worry about the uncertainty of their futures as they are the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents. CAMH has identified that mental health programs in Ontario are underfunded by $1.5 billion. Most programs have waitlists of one year or longer, and 75 percent of children with mental disorders are not able to access specialized treatment. On June 8, the Toronto Board of Health voted unanimously to declare anti-Black racism a public health crisis. This accurate assessment should be a call to action to fight against systemic racism, as well as improve the social determinants of health such as housing, employment, and so forth. City data shows that 44 percent of Black children live in poverty in Toronto, compared to 15 percent of non-racialized children. The links between poverty and mental health are well documented. This effect is intensified when individuals have experienced intergenerational trauma, which is present within Indigenous and Black communities.

A massive investment in mental health services is required to be able to adequately respond to the high level of need in our communities. But we must also connect the demand for mass investment in mental health care with calls to improve all aspects of the social determinants of health that can foster well-being and help people reach their full potential. It is not enough to just treat the symptoms; we must create the social conditions that promote health, well-being, and healing. While mental health is complex in both its biological and environmental factors, it is clear from the research into epigenetics that our social conditions greatly shape our well-being and that the relationship between biology and environment is likely to be very intertwined.

Achieving the social conditions that can promote good mental health would require a massive expansion of affordable housing, free post-secondary education, access to good unionized jobs with wages that keep up with the cost of living, expansion of social services, recreational programs for all ages, clean drinking water and adequate facilities in all communities, free public transit and transportation services, and so forth. Unfortunately, capitalism has created the opposite conditions. For example, social housing in Ontario has over 171,360 applications on their waitlists, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. In Toronto, individuals and families could be waiting a minimum of 10 years for a subsidized housing unit.  After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto Transit Commission eliminated 1,200 jobs and reduced service due to revenue loss. There are 56 long-term advisories for drinking water on Indigenous reserves across Canada. In Ontario, since the mid-1990s austerity policies and provincial downloading of services from the Mike Harris Conservative government, public services and social services have suffered cuts which they have never fully been able to recover from. Despite massive profits and high productivity, capitalism has hoarded wealth for a tiny minority at the expense of people’s well-being. In 2017, people who earned $2.7 million or higher saw their income increase by 27 percent—one the largest increases in 35 years. In 2016, the top 100 CEOs earned 209 times the average salary of a worker. Capitalism is on the brink of another great economic depression. As a result, the logic of this system will demand deeper cuts, especially after the massive expansion of public debt during the pandemic. Capitalism is literally compromising people’s health and wellness and then denying them decent livelihoods, adequate services and social supports.

The future does not have to be so bleak. Over the past month, protests around the world have arisen in solidarity with Black Lives Matter to fight against racism and police brutality, and to demand justice for the horrific murder of George Floyd and so many others. In 2019, Ontario and Alberta saw a record number of high school students organizing walkouts to protest cuts to education, as well to demand adequate support and mental health services for children and youth.

Workers in solidarity and partnership with oppressed and racialized communities can create alternatives, like an emergency mental health service that is free from the systemic racism of the police. We can demand the use of society’s wealth for the well-being of people. Socialism will provide the social conditions and material basis to begin to eradicate racism and other forms of oppression, which will enable people to live in conditions worthy of human beings and to advance the mental health of all.