KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A lot of people on social assistance live with mental health issues. Often these mental health issues cause people to fidget, talk to themselves, or do other involuntary body behaviours.
At times Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) recipients who have involuntary body behaviours, but are not causing any trouble and are just minding their own business are being bothered by police or private security guards.
I recently learned of three people who had this happen to them in Halifax. As you will see, one of those three incidents ended up badly.
Waiting for a friend, minding his own business
The first case is about a person who was inside a public building in early December, sitting on a bench waiting to meet someone. Two of the building’s private security guards came along and asked what he was doing there.
He told them that he was waiting to meet a friend, and expected him within the next 10 minutes or so. The security guards said to him, “we gotten a few complaints from people who said you are sitting here, yelling, fighting, and swearing at people walking by. As private guards who work in this building we have to address this just like we address any complaint.”
What saved him was that the friend he was waiting for showed up while he was dealing with security. However, what was offensive was that not only was he needlessly bothered, his friend was also told by security to “keep that person under control.”
At the food court, minding his own business
The second incident happened when it was income assistance check day at the end of October, This ESIA recipient was done his shopping at a dollar store located in a local shopping mall, and he took a seat at a table in the food court. All he was doing was sitting their minding his own business and organizing his stuff getting ready to go home.
He got approached by mall security and was advised that “we got complaints that you are acting intoxicated while you are sitting here. A couple of people complained you were swearing at them and overall people are concerned about your actions.”
Well, this person told me he was not drinking before coming to the mall, and that he stays away from alcohol altogether, so there was no reason for the public walking by to think that.
Anyway, this ESIA recipient was a bit offended and when he got up quickly and left the building, security followed him. He was happy his bus was outside waiting for him or otherwise he would not have known how he would have handled himself.
Just enjoying the park, and put in handcuffs by the cops
The third story is more ugly. This one gets the police involved, the person was actually put in handcuffs and taken to the hospital. The police officer said this had to happen because of what the law in Nova Scotia says. You can read this law here, the Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act.
After our third person got this free bus pass he was using it to take advantage of all the walking trails and parks in HRM. One day he was enjoying taking in a park, minding his own business. He stopped to take rest at a park bench and out of nowhere he got approached by two police officers. The minute they approached him, they said in not so nice a voice “What is going on with you here?”
He answered that question by saying “Just sitting here minding my own business and enjoying the day.”
They said to him, “we have gotten complaints that you were acting intoxicated, talking to yourself, and overall these complainants are saying your behaviour is making people walking by you feel uncomfortable.”
The police made him stand up and they used the breathalyzer on him to see if he was drinking. This income assistance recipient then got offended that the police made him do this, because he was not drinking at all.
The police then said to him “you are too hysterical to be out in public today.” At that point, they put the handcuffs on him and took him to the hospital.
We are only human, and nobody is perfect
Something that all three of them felt is anger by getting spoken to in such an offensive way about this issue. All three told me when I interviewed them for this story, “Kendall, we are only human and no one is perfect. Why did this have to happen to us?”
A while ago I wrote an article about how middle class people don’t understand what’s going on here with these involuntary body behaviours, feel uncomfortable, and end up harassing these people. I talk about:
- Fidgeting in public
- Talking to themselves, in some cases out loud
- Big hand movements that make a person look like they are trying to start a fight with someone.
- Making no eye contact when spoken too
- Bad and unacceptable types of handshakes
- Giving mismatching verbal and nonverbal messages/communication
- Staring into space
- Failing to smile, or giving the wrong type of smile.
- Eye rolling
- Crossing arms defensively
- Evil-looking facial expressions
The reality is that in the view of financially well-off people that those are nothing but mental health consumers not taking their medications. Besides these three cases I just talked about I have heard from many other ESIA recipients that they have had the experience of getting spoken to by police and security about their involuntary body language.
They also said that is made them scared to the point where they only want to leave their apartments to go to the drop-ins and soup kitchens. At least when they are at those places they are around people who understand them, they say.
I wonder if there is more of a role for Community Services here. ESIA and many mental health services are both run by the government. Maybe the departments involved could work more close together?
I will end this story with one more question.
Is the reason why this happens to ESIA recipients because of something wrong with our mental health system in Nova Scotia, or what?
Kendall Worth is a tireless anti-poverty activist who lives with disabilities and tries to make ends meet on income assistance.