Editor’s note: If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health there are a number of ways to get help, including by calling Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566. A list of local crisis centers is also available here.
Amidst a global recognition around the unregulated sale of sodium nitrite online for the purpose of suicide, Peel Region is reporting a 10 per cent increase in calls “involving either attempted suicide or suicide” in 2023 compared to the same period in 2022.
The police response to those calls in some jurisdictions, sources allege, has been intense.
The uptick in suicide calls, which police say could also be attributable to a new internal coding protocol, comes at a time when police forces around the world are looking closely at recent suicides due to the sale and distribution of sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is a potentially lethal substance with legal applications as a meat preservative, but the compound can be fatal if ingested even in small amounts.
In early May, Peel police announced Mississauga man Kenneth Law had been arrested and charged with two counts of counseling or aiding suicide due to his alleged online sales of this substance, along with other dangerous products which can be used for self-harm. Police forces across Canada have confirmed their cooperation with Peel police on the matter, and some, including the Durham Regional Police Service, have reassigned cases previously ruled as suicides to their homicide units.
The charges against Law have not been proven in court. Law is currently awaiting a bail hearing.
According to a representative from Peel Regional Police, calls relating to suicide or self-harm trigger a complex internal response, which can include the deployment of two metal health teams: the Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) and the Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT). COAST is a plainclothes unit which performs follow-up services when individuals are referred to PRP by the Peel-Dufferin division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, while MCRRT provides a rapid response to urgent mental health concerns and ongoing crises, including a visit from a specially trained uniformed officer and a crisis support worker.
According to police, a crisis support worker will typically take the lead on MCRRT visits, relaying their findings to the officer as needed. Patrol officers attend mental health calls on their own only if the MCRRT is not available.
Users of a pro-suicide forum, which CP24 has monitored in the aftermath of Law’s arrest, claim Canadian police have performed dozens of wellness checks since the investigation of Law, which was first kicked off by a Times of London investigation in April.
Users of the site, which CP24 is not naming, have said police have shown up in the middle of the night without support workers, and some have alleged multiple visits in the span of a few days. Some site users said they purchased sodium nitrite from Law, while others said they only filled out a form but never received the product.
One site user, who spoke with CP24 on the conditions of anonymity, said they received two consecutive suicide checks from a police force within Ontario in the weeks following Law’s arrest. The source did not confirm if they reside in Peel Region or elsewhere in the province.
“I had prepared myself that this was likely to happen, but it still rattled me,” the source told CP24. They said they had disposed of sodium nitrite purchased from Law several months before his arrest.
“I was truthful, I was honest,” they said. “I answered their questions…and then they came again. Different officers, claiming the dispatch system had not been updated and showed my case as open/unresolved. I repeated what I told their colleagues, they had no more questions and left.
“By then I was physically sick. shaking. sweats. Nausea. Anxiety sky-high,” the source continued. “Living with a mental illness is like riding a wave. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to stay on that surf board and it doesn’t take much to kick you off into the cold water. The wellness checks definitely threw me off mine.”
The source claims their wellness checks did not include a social worker or plainclothes officer, rather uniformed officers who embarrassed the source and continued to “hang around” in their neighborhood after checking in on them.
“Our mental healthcare system is overwhelmed and underfunded,” the source said. “Let’s please not make things worse for those who are one or two steps away from homelessness.”
Andrea Westbrook, manager of the Toronto Community Crisis Service, told CP24 that TCCS strives to reduce stigma and reduce “any unnecessary police involvement” in wellness checks when possible.
“We strive to tailor the response to the situation…we want to understand as much about that person as possible, and understand what they need to get back to what they define as their fullest ability to engage in their life. We really want to tailor our services to the individual, and give them space, and understand who they are and what their story is.”
Westbrook added that wellness checks are only a first step in ensuring a client’s well-being, and that an impactful check should include follow-up care and support.
“That’s a really essential part of our response model,” she said. “Not just one-time engagement, but ensuring people are connected to support. We want to work together with police to ensure that we’re able to contribute to what’s needed within the space. We want to respect each other’s roles and respect the individual and what their needs are. That doesn’t mean we don’t have joint responses with the police, but we need to have really strong communication and collaboration to ensure we’re bringing the right resources at the right time.
“In the last year, we’ve done thousands of mobile visits and wellness checks in the community, and only two per cent of those times have we needed to call the police,” he continued. “Imagine you’re having your very worst day, and then a police officer comes knocking on your door. What you need in that moment is actually crisis intervention, a mental health response. With the justice system, that can be netted.”