This is the Life: Dementia is serious, but let’s not forget other mental illnesses

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Like most who are in the final third of their life (statistically speaking) I tend to joke about one of the most common and fear-inducing signs of aging. It is a defense mechanism of course. Dementia is no laughing matter.

Dementia is expected by experts to affect an increasing number of people around the world by doubling every two decades. It’s a startling statistic. But it is one that draws attention because people in positions of power tend to be on the older side of the population and they either know someone who is affected or fear that their increasing forgetfulness is a harbinger of worse things to come.

If dementia is the current star among mental illnesses, it is far from the only one, and it should be courteous enough to share the stage with its cousins that affect younger people. The subject came up this week as I went through the police news with RCMP Staff Sgt. Darryl Hammond. A number of mental health issues were cited as we scrolled through the week’s worth of files opened for each case.

Hammond, who has spent the last 18 years in the Lower Mainland, has seen more than his share of police incidents in which mental illness have played a role, and his comments reflected the frustration often felt by those whose job it is to battle crime.

In study of crimes committed by people with serious mental disorders, the American Psychiatric Association found that “only 7.5 per cent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness.”

“Only” might be a peculiar word choice. “When we hear about crimes committed by people with mental illness, they tend to be big headline-making crimes so they get stuck in people’s heads,” said lead researcher Jillian Peterson, PhD. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, not criminal and not dangerous.” But if the proportion of crimes committed doesn’t seem high, I suspect that the frustration with having to deal with this particular class of “criminals” is very high.

Most of the policemen I know chose the field because they have a sense of justice and a true belief that policing makes our communities better. Their view of a criminal is a person who chooses to break laws to gain personal benefit. Those crimes — robbery, drug dealing, even violence — tend to fit that mould. But when a criminal act is committed by someone whose behaviour is dictated or permitted by mental illness, it is an entirely new ball game.

Who wants to go to a crime scene and come up against an individual whose brain chemistry is interfering with rational thought, and who might not be in control of his or her own actions? A different set of skills is needed to deal with the situation, which is especially challenging because there is a broad range of mental illnesses, all of which present in their own ways. An educational course here and there is not likely to prepare one for the variety of responses a policeman might come across.

It is now more than 30 years since the province, jumping on a North American trend, decided to shut down large mental health institutions, places that routinely produced horror stories about both treatment and behaviour. The closure phase was the easy part. How to provide services to people with mental illnesses afterward was trickier, and in my estimation we have done a lousy job. Wander around the downtown core in most cities and you will come across people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and a myriad of other conditions. Under the best of circumstances they might have a shot at living a more ordinary, productive life. But mental illness is also often associated with poverty, unemployment, homelessness and substance abuse, all complicating factors that make the medical issues more difficult to identify and deal with.

These folks, through no fault of their own, tax systems, not least of which is policing. When I first began to write the police news more than a decade ago, I was astonished at the time and effort members of our local detachment devoted to one particular mentally ill woman. She was living on her own out in a rural area and regularly called police to report imaginary incidents. The acting commanding officer at the time told me about his efforts to connect her with mental health services and engage her family to get her some much needed help. And she wasn’t a criminal, just a generator of complaints that ate up policing time. Imagine how much more complicated things get when a mentally ill person turns to criminal activity to pay for drug habits or simply to get food, clothing and shelter.

Dementia, we acknowledge, is a frightening and growing problem in our communities. But it is far from being the only one.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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