Public concern and outcry over police clashes with youth suffering with mental health issues exploded with the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in summer 2013. Images of an emotionally distraught youth confronted by the Toronto Police Services on a streetcar, and the subsequent shooting death of Yatim by the authorities brought the issue to a head. It also led to a review of the use of lethal force with persons experiencing a mental health crisis by the Toronto Police Services.
Despite the white-hot media attention at the time, little research has followed. Could these encounters be preventable through improved and evidence-informed police, social service and family support?
A team of researchers led by Professor Maria Liegghio of York University’s School of Social Work, including graduate students/alumni Prableen Jaswal, Cory Brown and Angele Sandha, alongside researchers from the University of Waterloo, McMaster and Wilfrid Laurier, asked this vital question. Funding was provided from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Small Research grant and a Minor Research grant from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. What the team found could become indispensable new knowledge for police, parents and social services: Stigma-informed crisis intervention training and holistic crisis planning could formulate brand new and increasingly effective responses.
“Our research fills a gap in mental health scholarship. Most previous studies looked at police encounters with adults, whereas we focused on children and youth,” Liegghio explains.
Stigma is serious barrier to getting help
Liegghio began with the wider context of mental illness: Earlier studies showed that the stigma of mental illness is a prime reason why children, youth and their caregivers avoid, delay or do not access mental health services.
Study captured quantitative and qualitative data for fulsome analysis
The goal of Liegghio’s study was to examine police encounters in child and youth mental health. To do this, her team studied statistics about police involvement among a community sample of children and youth (up to 24 years of age) accessing mental health services in the Region of Peel (Ontario).
This data, collected from 2009 to 2014 and stripped of all identifying information, was provided by a mental health agency in Peel called "The Centre." Liegghio selected Peel due to its diverse ethno-cultural and newcomer/immigrant groups.
The researchers also studied detailed qualitative notes about the cases from 2009 to 2011. Capturing both quantitative and qualitative data provided the researchers with a particularly fulsome view of the issue.
Quantitative story: One in six children and youth have had encounter with police
The researchers learned that of 8,920 cases, 1,449 children and youth had had police involvement at the time of accessing mental health services. From 2009 to 2014, 16 per cent of this population ̶ or one in six children and youth ̶ had experienced police encounters.
Boys/men were 1.5 times more likely than girls/women to have had police involvement. The majority of boys/men (over 63 per cent) were between 14 and 17 years of age. (Demographic information such as race and socio-economic status, was not reliably collected and, therefore, excluded.)
Qualitative story: Criminalization of children and youth experiencing mental health challenges
Through the case notes where the youth and children had encountered police, the researchers were able to dig deeper. These qualitative memos, which effectively explained why the police were involved, showed two main reasons: (1) to support a distressed child, and (2) due to concerns about a child’s conduct and behaviors.
Reason no. 1: Supporting a distressed child
The types of behaviors for which police were called included:
- Leaving the home without permission/missing;
- Destroying property;
- Aggression toward family members; and/or
- Saying or making suicidal gestures.
In cases of family conflict, the police intervened to deescalate the situation. For children under 9 years of age, police were called most often because of a domestic dispute between adults to which the child was a witness. In cases where the police had been called multiple times for youth 14 to 16 years of age, they were more likely to lay charges against the youth, including assault, attempted assault and/or uttering threats. Where a suicide attempt was indicated, the child or youth was escorted to the hospital for an emergency mental health assessment.
Reason no. 2: Concerns about a child’s conduct and behaviors
The concerns about behaviors included:
- Destruction of property;
- Allegations of criminal involvement with theft/shoplifting;
- Aggression toward peers/community members; and/or
- Drug and alcohol-related concerns.
Again, where the police had been called repeatedly for an older youth, the authorities were more likely to lay charges.
Take-away message for police training and social work practice
Given these findings, Liegghio emphasizes the importance of stigma-informed training for officers about mental health and crisis intervention. Without this, the criminalization of children and youth experiencing mental health challenges will continue. Liegghio acknowledges, however, that the role of police in society is challenging. “It’s a difficult terrain for them to navigate,” she emphasizes.
This research also has implications for social work practice. Here, Liegghio recommends holistic crisis planning, a child/family-centred approach already adopted within Peel Region, where the child, youth, and their caregivers are empowered to respond to unsafe situations.
Liegghio suggests that further research could offer invaluable insights, particularly in the areas of racialized youth and police training.
The article, “Police encounters among a community samples of children and youth accessing mental health services,” was published in Social Work in Mental Health (2017). Further reading, including the lived experiences of parents and siblings, can be found in Liegghio and Jaswal’s article, “Police encounters in child and youth mental health: Could stigma informed crisis intervention training (CIT) for parents help?” (Journal of Social Work Practice: Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Health, Welfare and the Community, 2015). To learn more about Liegghio’s research, visit her faculty profile.