Should people in mental health crisis be handcuffed?

When I showed up for my shift the other night at the concurrent disorders (mental health and addictions) transitional program where I work, I was told that one of the patients was being sent to hospital because she was having intense, active suicidal ideation. Shortly after I arrived, paramedics and police showed up, and that’s when things began to go downhill.

The paramedics seemed reluctant to transport her to hospital, which is a whole other story. Regardless, it was generally agreed that given the severity of her suicidal thinking, it was not appropriate for her to go to hospital on a voluntary basis. There is a section of the Mental Health Act in my Canadian province that allows police to apprehend someone to hospital involuntarily if the person is clearly mentally ill and posing a risk to self or others. The police and paramedics decided at that point decided that the patient would be taken to hospital in the back of a police car.

As I was trying to explain to the patient what was happening and why, she was clearly disturbed, and asked fearfully “will I have to go in handcuffs?” My automatic response was “absolutely not”. I was then informed that it is standard procedure for the police force in that city to handcuff people who are being transported to hospital under the Mental Health Act.

Jaw. Drop. In the city where I live and have worked for most of my career, police do not transport mental health patients to hospital; ambulances do. A police officer will ride along in the ambulance followed by their partner in the police car, and in my experience handcuffs are only used when the patient is highly agitated. I personally have been apprehended by police under the Mental Health Act on one occasion, and at that time I was taken by ambulance with a police officer accompanying, with no mention of handcuffs. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be cuffed and put in the back of a police car.

In a society with so much stigma against mental illness, the system needs to try harder and do more to respect people’s dignity. To treat mentally ill people in crisis like criminals is a huge step backwards. It disgusts me that police would consider it appropriately to routinely handcuff people who are in extreme mental distress. If the poor mentally ill person wasn’t traumatized before, they sure as hell are now. And if I was that patient of mine who was basically told that it was a special exception and privilege not to be handcuffed, I would never again disclose to care providers when I was having thoughts of suicide. If police and handcuffs are the consequences of disclosing suicidal thinking, why would anyone be motivated to share that information? It is hard enough to get treatment for those with mental illness; to have that kind of disincentive is the sort of thing that can end up costing people their lives.

When society treats people with mental illness as criminals, we all lose. While I won’t name the particular city where this happened, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police clearly has a lot of work to do. This sort of routine practice is abhorrent, and needs to stop.


Image credit: cocoparisienne on Pixabay

Originally published at on August 2, 2018.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle |