Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let's talk about punishing mentally ill

New high-risk designation plays to our ignorance

  • Print

Mental health has certainly become the story of the month, albeit for completely different reasons.

 

February is Let's Talk month, an initiative of Bell Canada to create greater awareness of mental-health issues. The campaign culminates Tuesday with national Let's Talk day.

Bell's work has been supported by the seven Canadian National Hockey League teams, which together are hosting events to demystify mental illness. The Winnipeg Jets have created Project 11, a campaign to honour former Manitoba Moose fan favourite Rick Rypien, who took his own life in August 2011 after battling depression.

Perhaps, through these gestures, the country will understand mental illness is a medical condition. It's not bad attitude, a lack of character or a sign of weakness. And its victims are just that. Victims.

One can only imagine how incredibly pleased the folks behind these campaigns were last week when, just days before national Let's Talk day, Ottawa put on a full-court press to convince Canadians mental health is a crime that requires greater punishment.

In Vancouver last Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced legislation to create a new high-risk designation for some people found not criminally responsible (NCR) for a crime.

High-risk subjects would spend at least three years in a mental hospital before being assessed for release.

As a tool for improving public safety, is the new law an upgrade from the current one? Current law requires anyone found NCR to be held in a secure facility where their illness is treated. They are subject to annual psychiatric assessments. An independent review board in each province is responsible for deciding when, or if, someone has recovered to the point where they can be released, the conditions for that release and when it should be revoked for failing to live up to those conditions.

It is a system that has worked remarkably well. The use of a NCR finding is quite rare. Even so, the most recent statistics show fewer than three per cent of all people declared NCR of a crime reoffend after their release. It also deserves to be said NCR provisions do not provide sanctuary for all those who author violence and mayhem. NCR would never apply, for example, to the Bernardos or the Olsons or the Picktons of the world. It is not a convenient excuse for drunks, drug addicts or your garden-variety sociopath.

NCR is a precise medical finding an accused person could not, because of a mental illness, form the intent to commit a crime. That they did not really know what they were doing, or what they were doing was wrong. It is the justice system's way of acknowledging some people are so sick, they should not be punished as criminals.

Why change the law? Despite the rarity of NCR findings and recidivism, it is a hot-button, visceral issue for many Canadians.

NCR findings usually follow gruesome, horrifically violent crimes. The fact those found NCR are not convicted of a crime and not sent to prison sparks anger and outrage among what is no doubt a significant segment of the population.

They howl about a lack of justice, the laxness of the punishment or the brevity of hospital incarceration. Unfortunately, with each of these complaints, we are demonstrating a profound ignorance about the nature of mental illness.

Proponents of this new NCR law may think a line can be drawn between those who suffer in silence or hurt themselves as a result of mental illness and those who hurt others.

The inconvenient truth is no such line can be drawn; it is the same illness and requires the same treatment.

Our inability to accept this truth manifests primarily in a desperate shortage of treatment options. It is what puts thousands of mentally ill Canadians in prison. It is what forces some of the mentally ill to carry their burdens alone until, lamentably, they can no longer withstand the strain, and hurt themselves or someone else. The new law not only ignores this truth, it fortifies our ignorance.

The new law says public safety must now be the first concern in any decision to release someone found NCR. That suggests we were routinely releasing people who were a threat to the public out of some misguided compassion. We did not, and the insinuation is profoundly, intellectually dishonest.

There are those who will argue public safety must always trump compassion for the mentally ill. However, it is only through a delicate balancing act -- the careful consideration of the nuances of each individual case involving a NCR finding -- that we get the opportunity to demonstrate our maturity and humanity. Consider that despite the complexities of the mental illness, we have a very nearly perfect record in ensuring public safety. Offering to "fix" something with that record of success is a cynical triumph of public relations over responsible governing.

So, let's talk about mental illness. Let's get it out into the open and challenge our preconceptions.

But as we're doing that, let's ensure we're not talking out of both sides of our mouths.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2013 A8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

It’s the End Of the Term And They Know It, Part Two

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A young gosling flaps his wings after taking a bath in the duck pond at St Vital Park Tuesday morning- - Day 21– June 12, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Bright sunflowers lift their heads toward the south east skies in a  large sunflower field on Hwy 206 and #1 Thursday Standup photo. July 31,  2012 (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Has the attack on Parliament hill shaken your faith in Canada's ability to protect its citizens from terrorist threats?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google