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Saturday, September 05, 2009

More training in mental illness

September 5, 2009
David Jackson, The Chronicle Herald

Police and jail guards will get more training to recognize mental illnesses and how to deal with people afflicted with them, Justice Minister Ross Landry said Friday.

The province commissioned an expert panel last year to look at the phenomenon called excited delirium and what role it could play in in-custody deaths, to examine the risks of using stun guns and other restraints on people in that state, and to recommend how law enforcement officials should deal with those people.

Mr. Landry said the most significant recommendation in the eight-member panel’s new report is ensuring that front-line justice workers are trained to recognize people with symptoms of excited delirium, or as the panel suggests calling it, autonomic hyperarousal state.

The minister, a former RCMP officer, said officers do get training in dealing with people with mental illnesses but new information is always coming along, as with this condition.

"A couple of years ago, who knew about this?" Mr. Landry said in a telephone interview. "It’s not that long ago. And yet, people over time have passed away in this condition."

It was the death of Howard Hyde, a Dartmouth man who had a history of mental health issues, that led to the panel’s review. Mr. Hyde died in November 2007, 30 hours after Halifax Regional Police Tasered him when he scuffled with them at the police station.

The province’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Matthew Bowes, said Mr. Hyde died of excited delirium due to paranoid schizophrenia. Dr. Bowes said the death was accidental and he found no evidence that the Taser caused the death.

The death led to a provincial review of Taser use, and that led to the review of excited delirium.

The panel, of which Dr. Bowes was a member, said the symptoms of excited delirium are common to other medical and psychiatric conditions and recommended that the term autonomic hyperarousal state be used for people showing those symptoms.

Panel chairman Dr. Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist at Dalhousie University, said there’s been a useless debate about whether excited delirium is or isn’t a medical diagnosis. He said the panel found the phenomenon well-described in medical literature going back 120 years, just under different names.

The symptoms include extreme agitation, aggressive behaviour, paranoia or delirium, incoherent and rambling speech, extraordinary strength and numbness to pain, and profuse sweating, the report said.

Dr. Kutcher said the key thing to keep in mind in dealing with people in that state is they need medical attention.

"I think the most important thing here is to realize that this is a medical emergency and that this situation requires the combined efforts of law enforcement and medical first-responders," he said in an interview.

The panel recommends creating a provincial training program for all first-responders in recognizing signs of mental illness and responding appropriately.

The report also says call-takers and dispatchers should get special training to help them recognize whether a call involves someone with a mental illness.

Dr. Kutcher said a dispatcher can get an indication of that by asking certain questions, such as whether the caller knows if the person they’re calling about is aware of his or her surroundings. The information would help a dispatcher know whether to send police and paramedics to the scene right away.

The panel recommended first-responders first try to calm the person in a hyperaroused state by talking to them, but if that doesn’t work, to restrain them quickly because a prolonged struggle could jeopardize the person’s life.

Dr. Kutcher said the panel couldn’t find scientific evidence suggesting that one form of restraint is better or safer than another, including stun guns. He said that’s why the panel recommended the province create a database on incidents involving the use of force.

Halifax Regional Police already adhere pretty well to the review’s goals, said Const. Brian Palmeter, the force’s spokesman.

"Our training and practices are consistent with the recommendations," he said.

"That being said, we are looking forward to working with the province to review and update our training where necessary."

Still, Const. Palmeter doubts there will ever be a single case in which an officer would be able to handle the crisis and follow all the recommended advice completely.

Mr. Landry said his department will consult with police, jail guards and sheriff’s services in developing procedures for dealing with people with mental illnesses. He said officers often have to make split-second decisions when dealing with people, so he wants them to have the information to help them make good decisions.

Dr. Hunter Blair, whose wife Joanna Blair is Mr. Hyde’s sister, thinks a dispatcher won’t always be able to get enough information from an excited caller to know whether to send an ambulance to a scene involving a person with mental illness.

The main issue, he said, is how to handle that person once you get there, and the review doesn’t seem to contain much new information.

"They’ve produced what you would have expected them to produce, given the current state of knowledge or non-knowledge," he said from his Shelburne home Friday.

He is happy with the recommended plan to track all calls to study the outcomes of various restraint methods and treatments.

"That’s a good move," he said. "They started doing this in Ontario some time ago."

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said officials in her department will consult with district health authorities and Emergency Medical Care Inc., which provides ambulance services, about the report.

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