The mental health community in Canada is accusing the Conservative government of fuelling stigma around mental illness. It’s an unfair accusation. Stigma is not perpetuated by a proposed federal law that would designate for judicial scrutiny the most deadly offenders with a mental disorder. Public safety is the primary issue.
Bill C-54 would create a new “high-risk designation” for some of those found not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness. Those deemed high-risk would have to wait three years between hearings, rather than one. A judge, not a provincial review board, would decide whether they could be released. “What this bill has done is tell Canadians that they should be afraid of people with a mental illness,” says Chris Summerville, head of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, and an organizer of an alliance of nine mental-health groups, including the Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
This is hard to credit. There are now countless examples of Canadians talking openly about mental illness, and fighting back against centuries of stigma. And while they’re talking openly, they don’t need to be so hush-hush about the extreme danger that may at times be associated with severe mental illness.
The inhuman killing of a fellow Greyhound bus passenger by Vince Li of Manitoba in 2008 left a sense of horror among Canadians. A beheading of a stranger, followed by acts of cannibalism, does tend to stick unpleasantly in the mind. If that’s adding to stigma, don’t blame the government.
Now the public, watching from afar, notices that Mr. Li, to judge from the escorted passes he has been receiving from a review board, seems to be on a track for eventual release.
Stanley Yaren, a psychiatrist who has treated Mr. Li, told the CBC that, if not for the definition of “high-risk,” which includes someone who has committed a brutal crime, Mr. Li might not be seen as a high risk. No wonder the Conservative government gave the decision-making power to the courts, which will take advice from psychiatric experts, just as they do now in deciding whether the NCR label should apply. The balance between judges and medical experts is what is appealing. Public safety remains an overarching concern, which in turn should increase public confidence and reduce stigma, not aggravate it, as courts continue to develop their understanding of mental illness and treatment.
Dr. Yaren expresses a concern that, if the high-risk designation becomes law, Mr. Li would not be able to receive passes that allow the authorities to observe how he handles liberty. But if these brief visits carry such weight in an ultimate release decision, one wonders how well these decisions hold up over weeks, months and years.
The government’s measured response to Mr. Li and other cases doesn’t tell Canadians to fear mental illness. It’s about safety, not stigma.