I get it, it’s complicated.
Mental Illness is an illness that unfortunately receives compassion only when it is convenient or easy. As a society, we get Bell Let’s Talk with all the celebrities speaking about their challenges, we have compassion for children’s mental health and maybe, to some extent, we even have understanding when it comes to seniors with dementia. But when the illness is so severe or when a system fails to help someone until something tragic happens we tend to evoke our moral compass and jump to an extreme, emotional reaction.
That is not in any way an indictment on victims or to challenge their thoughts and feelings. When someone with a severe mental illness is involved in a serious incident where a life is lost, it will always evoke a strong emotional response. It is a tragedy, no question. You can’t blame those close to such an event for feeling sadness, anger, outrage or a whole gamut of emotions. But often tabloid media or social media pundits run with the story by pouring fuel on fear and hatred which really serves no one.
There are no winners in those cases. Very few criminal cases are adjudicated NCR and the notion that it is a get out of jail card are purely based in fiction. In fact, most people going through the forensic mental health system remain under the purview of the Ontario Review Board longer than they would had they just gone through the corrections system. As well, very few of those in a forensic mental health system have committed a serious offence. But the attention will always fall on those rare, extreme cases. In fact, the total percentage of the NCR population connected to homicide is 2.6 per cent.
We have become a reactionary society in many ways. Why? Because it requires less effort and less money than it would to be proactive. It’s easy to comment on a story on social media. It is the greatest way for us to feel important or validated with the least amount of effort.
I find it puzzling that we judge how we feel about mental illness based on an outcome. If someone with a psychotic disorder takes someone’s life we want revenge and don’t believe they should receive care. Now if that same person was shot and died in a police encounter we have sympathy for them and disdain for police. Shouldn’t we always be saying to ourselves, “why did it come to that?” In most cases we can go back and see an obvious opportunity for early intervention in which a person fell through cracks in the system. Isn’t that where our focus should be?
It is easy and perhaps natural to react after a tragedy. The Harper government did just that with a Bill that was initially called the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act. They cited cases of people who had never been in the forensic mental health system. They used fear and emotion to rally support. What they failed to disclose was that every case they used to justify this Bill would have and would still happen today. Why? Because it was an easy and emotional response that wouldn’t cost the federal government a dime. The harder, but more effective response would have been to directly invest in services to help those people earlier and avoid tragedy. This is not a partisan comment. It was just a very poor piece of legislation regardless of which party put it forward. If someone said to you we can spend money that will prevent drunk drivers from ever getting behind the wheel of a car or we can use that money instead to put them in jail longer after they hurt someone, wouldn’t you always want option 1?
Most of the extreme cases you read about aren’t people that received help through a forensic mental health system. They are those people you pass on the street each day that have fallen through the cracks, the homeless you dance around on the streets of Toronto without a reflective pause or they might be your neighbours. The forensic mental health system is successful. It does account for public safety.
Lastly I would hope this was obvious.
Ontario Shores is a hospital. We are not a jail. Our mandate is to provide assessment and treatment for people to support them in their recovery regardless of what system door they come to us from. We have great people with specialty mental health expertise. The reality is we serve a broad population. Forensic mental health is just one aspect of our services and in that population, the percentage that have committed a serious offense are minor. We provide care for adolescents 12 and older, including one of the only Eating Disorders Units of its kind in Canada. We provide care for seniors with mental illness and dementia. We have clinics for people with Traumatic Stress, a Women’s Clinic that treats postpartum psychosis and anxiety and much more. You can find all our programs and services on ontarioshores.ca if you are interested.
So when I read comments on social media fuel stigma by referring to us as a nut house, insane asylum, call our clients any of the many derogatory or stigmatizing words I too find my emotions running away from me. Not because it is my place of employment, but because every day I see the faces of the young people, the seniors or any one of those with an illness who has come to us for help and I can only imagine what it must feel like to be shunned and labeled with such a lack of compassion or care. I think of the families, the fathers, mothers, children who read such things and it must break their heart. Not only do they have to deal with an illness they must at times feel the world is against them.
I encourage people to become advocates on social media and help shift perspectives before speaking out on social media. I hope each day more and more people will choose to help others keep both families in mind when reading a story involving tragedy and mental illness and try to understand how loss will likely been felt by all parties.