A new study conducted by mental health researchers has found that students at several Ontario universities were restrained by police during mental health transfers to hospital.
The new report published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) investigated the involvement of police in the care of university students experiencing a mental health crisis.
The study — which CAMH said it believes is the first of its kind in the world — interviewed physicians at nine Ontario universities between July 2018 and January 2019.
“To be taken in handcuffs and loaded up in a police cruiser seems brutal and traumatic for the patient and sends all the wrong messages about a caring, supportive environment,” one unnamed interview participant said.
The resulting report did not name the individual universities but said the use of police restraints varied depending on each institution. Some universities mandate police restraints anytime a students needs emergency mental health care at a hospital, while others specify handcuffs are only to be used as a last resort.
“We wanted to identify university policies that facilitated most dignified transfers to hospital from campus for students in need of emergency mental health care,” lead author Dr. Andrea Chittle, a family physician who has worked in a university health clinic, said.
“We learned that at some universities, handcuffs are being used every time. It is routine to convey students to hospital in handcuffs in all situations.”
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Of the nine Ontario universities involved, five clinics called police when a student needed to be transferred to hospital, the report said. Two saw police “routinely” handcuff students to transport them.
“Before I was in the system, I didn’t realize how intertwined policing was with mental health,” undergraduate student and study contributor Gina Nicoll, who has lived experience of mental illness including being transferred by police to hospital for assessment, said.
“It just felt really disheartening and I felt defeated and powerless. It made me feel I was doing something wrong just by being unwell and I felt I was criminalized for it.”
The study aims to inform universities about which policies work best for students and what to avoid. It concluded that regular police involvement in student transfers during mental health emergencies was harmful.
The authors suggested police only be used in the rare circumstances a student was fleeing or becoming violent.
“I think we are seeing society move more broadly away from police involvement in mental healthcare,” said Dr. Chittle.