Let’s talk about punishing mentally ill

New high-risk designation plays to our ignorance


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

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/02/2013 (3474 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

CP Stephen Harper

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

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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