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Mental health court proposed for Kamloops

Researchers at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) will be asking the province next year to create a mental health court in Kamloops.

Thanks to funding obtained through the Law Foundation of BC, TRU law professor Ruby Dhand, lawyer Michelle Stanford, QC, and psychiatrist Dr. Sunette Lessing have been putting together recommendations for its creation.

Right now, there are 22 designated mental health courts in Canada, including in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto, Dhand tells KamloopsMatters. 

There are none in B.C.; however, there are two community courts — which have similar values to a mental health court — in Victoria and Vancouver.

A mental health court is voluntary, says Dhand, and is available to those with mental health, disability and addiction issues.

"They're often accused of minor offences... such as shoplifting, misdemeanours, things like that."

Unlike a traditional courtroom, a mental health court is made up of lawyers, judges and service providers. All specialize in mental health and substance use. 

The multi-disciplinary approach seeks to understand what each individual is going through.

"Some of the approaches have included somebody doing community service and agreeing to go on a particular treatment plan, which could include medication. ....  It could include community service, a lot of different types of therapies, going to counselling. ... There’s a lot of monitoring. Everyone is involved in this collaborative strategy, to ensure that the person has better access to community supports."

One of the goals of a mental health court is to divert these individuals from prison (and the criminal justice system in general), notes Dhand. She says there's an over-representation of people with mental health issues and addiction behind bars, and a mental health court is just a creative way of thinking outside the box.

Since December 2018, Dhand and her team have conducted around 60 interviews with numerous local stakeholders. They've been in touch with other mental health courts across Canada and in the U.S., and have spoken to locals who have been through the justice system.

"They felt like they weren't being heard," Dhand says of conversations she's had. "They really felt like they were wasting the court's time. They felt like it was a revolving door, sometimes without legal counsel."

For individuals who have been through a mental health court, it's quite the opposite.

"It's a meaningful experience for the person because they often feel they are being heard, they are being validated. There's a different sense of collegiality," says Dhand. "(The court) is a place where we can bring all the different service providers together, and say, 'OK, this person actually needs housing,' or, 'This person is a young person who's been interacting with the criminal justice system. How can we create a strategy that's an alternative?'"

As for a location, the researchers are proposing the current law courts in downtown Kamloops. 

Dhand and her colleagues will be presenting their recommendations to B.C.'s specialized court committee in early January 2020. 

"We're very hopeful that we'll be approved," she says. "We've done quite a lot of research, and we'll just continue trying. ... It's really evident that mental health and addiction is increasing in the community. It's not appropriate that the largest mental health providers are becoming our prisons."



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