A Nova Scotia couple says a woman wearing a hospital gown walked into their Halifax home on Monday, leaving them traumatized. But now they feel guilt — and anger at the province’s approach to mental health.
Emmett Paul came home from a doctor’s appointment just before 5 p.m. on Monday. He says he walked into his Robie Street apartment to find a woman he didn’t recognize standing in his doorway.
“She seemed very confused. She didn’t really say anything until I spoke to her again. So in my confusion, I just said, ‘Hello?’” Paul said.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘I’m thirsty.’ And she spoke really quietly, kind of like a whisper.”
Paul was holding a coffee in his hand at the time and offered it to her if she stepped out of the apartment.
“She kind of looked around and she went, ‘No, it’s cold,’ and she started to close the door,” he said. His partner Erik Saulnier was home at the time.
“At this point, I didn’t know if (my partner) Erik was OK. I didn’t know what was happening.”
He then told the woman he would go get her something warm, and after she closed the door on him, he called 911.
“I didn’t know if she was violent,” Paul said, adding that he broke down in tears while calling for help.
“I absolutely had the moment where I thought my boyfriend’s dead.”
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. While on the phone with 911, Paul was told that his partner had also called, and was barricaded in the bedroom.
Saulnier had described the incident as the longest five minutes of his life.
He was napping when he woke up to his partner’s distressed voice from outside of the room.
“I come out of the bedroom to the hallway and expecting to see him, and it’s not his shadow,” Saulnier said.
Saulnier then worried for the safety of their three cats, only one of which was in the room with him. As he opened the bedroom door to get the others in, he watched the stranger in his home. He said she was wearing a cardigan and socks, no shoes. He later found out she was wearing a hospital gown underneath the cardigan.
“(She) took a couple of steps and actually washed her feet in our cats’ water dish. Not making any sense, really … I couldn’t register what she was saying to me,” he said.
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Woman was known to police
When police arrived at the apartment, Saulnier was surprised to see the officers’ response.
“The first officer walked in and goes, ‘Oh, you again,’ like, ‘Get out of here.’”
As she was being arrested, the couple said she was wearing Paul’s headphones on her ears. They agreed it seemed she thought they were earmuffs and “wanted to get warm.” Paul said when he asked police for the headphones, an officer “yanked them off her head.”
Saulnier and Paul said the officers informed them they were the eighth call to police in two days about the same woman.
“They said that she frequents the hospital and that they won’t do anything for her. So she ends up leaving and roaming the neighbourhood,” Saulnier said.
Saulnier asked police what they could do that would get the woman the help she needs, as a restraining order wouldn’t work. He said an officer went on a brief phone call and returned to let them know the woman was charged with breaking and entering.
“So apparently the only way to get mental health (help) is through a charge.”
Read more: N.S. social workers call for systemic overhaul of the mental health and addiction services system
Halifax Regional Police was not available for an interview but confirmed to Global News that a 47-year-old woman was arrested and charged that day.
“Officers take measures based on the specific factors of the situation to secure the safety of the involved individuals as well as the public. Such incidents may entail an integrated response from multiple first responder partners, mental health, and healthcare experts,” read an email statement, in part.
“While police are part of the mental health supports in our community, our community partners are ultimately the subject matter experts, and our focus is on public safety.”
Saulnier and Paul were not pleased with the way officers responded.
“They seemed very comfortable in how they were treating her, which was not how I would have. It seemed very aggressive to me, honestly,” Paul said.
“I feel really bad about how she was dealt with, about how they handled the situation.”
Calls for response to mental health crisis
Nova Scotia Health said in an email that it won’t comment on individual patient care, but confirmed there were no patients missing from the QEII Health Sciences Centre on Monday.
Saulnier took to Facebook to recount what happened to him and Paul, and to call on government officials to respond to the flawed mental health system that left the woman alone on the street in the first place.
“I just want her to get help. I don’t want her to fall through the system again,” Saulnier said.
“Is this how we help Nova Scotians with their mental health? Is this the price that we have to pay to be able to get somebody to that help? We have to pay for the police. to go through the court system, to get to mental health?”
The post was shared more than 2,300 times, and hundreds of comments tagged municipal, provincial and federal politicians. Saulnier said not one has responded.
“It shows that people care about this issue, but none of our elected officials do.”
Both Paul and Saulnier said they feel guilty about what happened to the woman.
“In retrospect, I do feel bad for the way I reacted because … she wasn’t a danger,” Saulnier said. “The more I think about it and the more I see it, the more disgusted I am by it.”
Paul questioned what other options they had.
“What could I have done better? What could I have done that would have helped her rather than gotten her charged?” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
— with files from Amber Fryday.