Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mercy for mentally ill begins at the grave

There are two types of victims: living and dead

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Community grief over the deaths of Lisa Gibson and her two children is markedly different from other similar tragedies.


Community grief over the deaths of Lisa Gibson and her two children is markedly different from other similar tragedies. Photo Store

What if Lisa Gibson had lived?

Paramedics arrived at a Westwood home eight days ago to find Gibson's two children -- one two and the other just three months old -- in critical condition in a bathtub. Gibson, who reportedly suffered from postpartum depression (PPD), was missing. The search ended three days later when her lifeless body was pulled from the Red River.

In the wake of this unspeakable tragedy, we have seen a great outpouring of compassion. Winnipeggers are trying to not only understand Gibson's mental illness, but also find ways to ensure other women engulfed by the same despair get the help they need.

Vigils have been organized. A spontaneous memorial has sprung up outside the family's home. Social-service agencies are holding open grief counselling and mental-health-awareness sessions. Tough questions are being posed to officials of the health-care system to determine whether Gibson sought help.

When you add it all up, it means we are finally, thankfully talking about how to help those who suffer from debilitating mental illness.

However, lurking beneath the outreach, tributes and compassion is a troubling realization: If Gibson had not thrown herself into the river, we would have likely reacted quite differently.

We need only look at how we treated others who, in the fog of mental illness, committed horrible, violent crimes but did not take their own lives.

Consider the hatred we mustered in the early 1990s for Donna Trueman, a young mother suffering from profound psychosis who murdered her four-year-old son, convinced he was possessed by the spirit of Adolph Hitler. Owing to changes in the Criminal Code stemming from a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling, Trueman was the first person found not criminally responsible for a violent crime. The public howled when it was decided Trueman would serve no prison time for killing her son.

We can also look to the case of Vincent Li, the drifter who beheaded fellow bus passenger Tim McLean in July 2008. Li, we know now, was tormented by voices telling him to commit acts of violence against strangers. Li was found not criminally responsible for McLean's death, and remains a resident of the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.

Like Trueman, Li became a political football for knee-jerk politicians and law-and-order crusaders. Every development in his treatment, every step he takes closer to freedom, is denounced as an affront to justice.

It's pretty obvious there were no vigils, no outpouring of compassion for Li and Trueman. We made no sincere attempt to understand the underlying disease that precipitated the crimes. There were memorials and genuine expressions of compassion for the victims of the violent acts, but we stopped short of showing compassion for the victims of mental illness.

It deserves to be said we can't really know Gibson's state of mind when she killed her children, or why she took her own life. No formal diagnosis is possible now and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has so far refused to make public information about what, if any, contact she had with health-care professionals.

However, sources said she suffered from PPD, and was concerned enough about her state of mind that she sought treatment from a physician a short time before last week's tragedy.

If she did suffer from a postpartum psychosis, and the chances are very high, then a comparison with Li and Trueman is very revealing: We can now clearly see there are two types of mental-health victims: those who lived, and those who took their own lives and never had to face the aftermath of their crimes. This is indicative of the terrible shortsightedness that affects the public debate over mental health and how to treat it.

We will occasionally admit mental-health illness needs better treatment options, but almost no one makes it a priority. We will demonstrate compassion for some people who suffer from mental illness, but have no trouble expressing our contempt for others, even when it has been proven they could not have been fully responsible for the acts they committed.

Irony? We have a federal government that, in the same week professional athletes and their corporate sponsors launched a mental-health awareness campaign, introduced legislation to ensure longer terms of incarceration for anyone found not criminally responsible for a crime.

It seems quite obvious had Gibson survived, she would have been treated to the same contempt and outrage Trueman and Li faced. Under new not-criminally-responsible laws, she would have been portrayed as a monstrous criminal, not as a victim of a disease.

There would be no vigils, no marches, no outpouring of compassion and no debate about how to help other women who suffer the same affliction.

The ultimate irony? Society apparently requires the victims of mental illness to take their own lives before we get serious about helping them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2013 A5


Updated on Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 6:40 AM CDT: replaces photo

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