‘Crisis Call’ provokes thought, discussion

A movie screening at La Place Rendez-Vous on Tuesday afternoon prompted some frank and open discussion between the different groups of people involved in dealing with mental health crises.
“I think it was a tremendous afternoon,” said Fort Frances OPP S/Sgt. Hugh Dennis, who attended the public screening along with several other officers from across the district.
The film, entitled “Crisis Call,” is a 90-minute documentary about how police deal with people in mental health crises.
“The film shows the government has really cut back on health care spending and in welfare spending. And there is very little housing support,” noted Laura Sky, its writer and director.
“All of that is the context in which people are having emotional crises,” she added.
“The police end up being the front-line mental health workers. It’s a terrible position to put them in,” she stressed.
“Crisis Call” was inspired by the story of Edmond Yu, a psychiatric survivor in crisis who was shot and killed by Toronto police after an altercation on a city bus in 1997.
In the film, Sky interviews Det. Cst. Andria Cowan, one of three officers involved in the shooting of Yu, and Jim Gillespie, a psychiatric survivor from Thunder Bay and co-founder of People Advocating for Change Through Empowerment (PACE).
Both Gillespie and Det. Cst. Cowan were on hand for Tuesday’s screening, along with Sky, and all three participated in a discussion afterwards.
In the film, Sky also has an exclusive interview with Shaun Davis, the young man who, in a full-blown psychotic state triggered by a prescription medication overdose, forced a Greyhound bus off the highway near Ignace in December, 2000.
A 74-year-old passenger died six weeks later as a result of the accident.
Davis explained how he was travelling from Calgary and had been prescribed a new medication for attention deficit disorder (ADD). The pills were meant to calm him down, but the more he took, the more agitated he got.
He said he was having paranoid delusions that people were after him and he asked the bus driver to stop. “The next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital,” Davis said.
He was told afterwards about the accident, that he had caused it, and that a woman died because of it. “It affected me so much, I tried to take my own life,” he remarked.
Davis spent 11 months in jail awaiting trial, eight of them in solitary confinement at his own request. He was found not guilty for psychiatric reasons.
The film also interviews police officers, psychiatric survivors, and mental health outreach workers in Toronto and Thunder Bay, and gets them to talk to each other about what changes need to be made in the way people in mental health crises are treated.
That process was mirrored in the discussion that took place here after the screening.
“The film is a way of inviting them together, to look at how each community handles people in mental health crises, to determine what works and what doesn’t work,” Sky explained.
“We’re asking them to use the film to get them started on that journey,” she added.
About 60 people came out to see the powerful documentary as well as to talk about these issues in the context of the local community.
Poverty was identified as a major factor in psychological problems. “It’s often homelessness itself that drives people into severe emotional crisis,” Sky said.
“When people are hungry, they’re tense and it causes situations,” said Cathy Crowe, a street nurse in Toronto who appears in the film.
There was frank discussion between local police officers, outreach workers, and psychiatric survivors about the issue of handcuffing people in crisis.
Those against the practice called it humiliating and degrading while officers said handcuffs are used to prevent a person from hurting him or herself—or others.
“We don’t want to hurt sick people,” said S/Sgt. Dennis. “That’s not our objective. We want to keep them safe.”
In the film, Sky explains that when a person is having an emotional crisis, the police often are the first on the scene—and it is up to them to find a hospital or safe house where the person in crisis can get help.
But with so few spaces available in hospitals or safe houses for lack of funding, police often are left to look after the person alone.
“Police are frustrated. They don’t have the resources, either,” Sky said, adding police use what is sometimes called “Tim Hortons therapy,” where they take the psychiatric survivor to a coffee shop to talk.
“Sometimes Tim Hortons is better than the hospital,” Sky said. “Sometimes it’s all you can do at that moment.”
Gillespie said he avoids the psychiatric system “at all costs. I understand that frustration very well.
“What we need is jobs, we need family, we need supports, we need preventive services so we don’t reach the stage of being in a crisis,” he added.
Discussions went on for about an hour-and-a-half and many were pleased with the outcome.
“I was really pleased by people’s openness,” said Nancy Daley of the Fort Frances branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which sponsored the free screening.
“People revealed some difficult things and asked some tough questions,” she added.
“This was a barrier-breaker, not a barrier-maker,” said S/Sgt. Dennis. “This is a really positive step.”
He said the film and discussion were very relevant to officers in Rainy River District who deal with people in emotional crisis “several times a week.”
“I found it very important,” he added. “And from the people that attended, it’s an issue that’s important to all of us in the Rainy River District.”
The presenters also were pleased with the turnout. “In Toronto, we can’t get this many people to come out to a screening,” Det. Cst. Cowan said.
“I’m very gratified to see all the police officers here,” Sky noted. “We made this film in the hopes that people could use it to make things better.”
The three presenters will show the film in Kenora Wednesday night and in Dryden on Thursday.
(Fort Frances Times)