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Seeking a cure for the clinically ignorant

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In a way, we all understand what it's like to be delusional, which seems ironic, given today's topic.

We understand what it's like to be delusional because we exist in various forms of denial. It's how we get through a serious illness, an abusive relationship and life in general.

So it happened that, several weeks ago I lapsed into a state of denial when mental health advocate Chris Summerville mentioned that most people -- even smart, educated people who should know better -- didn't understand.

He meant they didn't understand how the Manitoba Criminal Review Board could allow Vince Li to eventually live outside a locked ward at the Selkirk Mental Hospital after his psychosis-induced killing four summers ago of fellow Greyhound bus passenger Tim McLean. I didn't believe Chris's informal survey. More accurately, I didn't want to believe him.

Then Monday morning a Free Press/Probe Research poll confirmed exactly that. It found 60 per cent of those Manitobans surveyed opposed Li even taking escorted day trips; the baby steps that lead in the direction of a medicated and monitored release back into the community. Furthermore, more than half of poll respondents want Li -- and other killers like him who have been judged not criminally responsible -- locked away for life. Which is what Tim McLean's mother, Carol de Delley, has been campaigning for.

Maybe I wouldn't have been as surprised by the poll, though, if I'd known about the results of a national survey undertaken in 2008, the same year Li killed McLean. That survey, which formed part of the Canadian Medical Association's eighth annual National Report Card on Health Care, was able to measure the socially stifling effects of stigma in a categorical way.

It found:

-- 50 per cent of Canadians wouldn't tell friends or co-workers that someone in their family had a mental illness.

-- 42 per cent would stop socializing with a friend diagnosed with mental illness.

-- 55 per cent wouldn't marry someone who had a mental illness.

-- 25 per cent were afraid of being around anyone with a mental illness.

Being afraid of "strange" people is the same primal instinct that causes even the most empathic and understanding of us to warily pass by that scruffy-looking person talking to themselves on a street corner. And I think it's fear, coupled with a lack of understanding -- and perhaps a sense that Vince Li is getting away with murder -- that influenced the Probe poll.

But what makes the result so disappointing is the lack of progress in the public's understanding. In part, I suspect, that's because unlike the gradual public acceptance of gays and gay rights -- "crazy" people don't come across as likeable as Ellen DeGeneres or Anderson Cooper.

In popular culture, roles depicting the mentally ill are reserved for stereotyping in Stephen King horror movies, not humanizing Will and Grace sitcoms.

But then I've never needed Hollywood to humanize mental illness.

I've written before about my late mother Dorothy's torturous struggles with schizophrenic-like symptoms.

Drugs rescued her from paranoid delusions of needles stabbing through her apartment floor and students at the University of Winnipeg "beaming" through the walls to study her. She would stop taking her medications and gradually descend back into her psychotic hell, only to be forced back into a psychiatric ward and again gradually re-medicated over the course of weeks.

Yes, it's common for people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia to go off their meds. But the signs of the illness returning are gradual and detectable and if that happened to someone like Vince Li, he would be subject to being returned to hospital.

Which reminds me.

Bill Ashdown, another local, longtime mental health advocate, has also written on the subject of the release of the not-criminally-responsible.

"This incident illustrates the horror of mental illness undiagnosed and untreated," Ashdown said. "And it illustrates the incredible success of modern psychotropic medications that are truly wonder drugs that have emptied psychiatric institutions around the world and have restored tens of thousands to society. Above all, it highlights the need for more awareness, more care and compassion and understanding toward the mentally ill. And more education. Because the more you know, the less you fear."

But Ashdown wasn't referring to Vince Li. He wrote those words in 1992, in response to a column I'd written after the release of a mother who -- in an undiagnosed psychotic state like Li -- used a broomstick to kill her four-year-old child because she thought he was Hitler. So far as I know, that woman has never been heard of in a public way since. Yet, the public paranoia over people like her persists.

Which brings me to the same sad conclusion I came to nearly 20 years ago when I wrote about the mother who killed her own child. Wonder drugs can help people who are profoundly mentally ill. Regrettably, though, there is no magical medication for the clinically ignorant.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2012 B1

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