For generations mental health professionals in Canada have kept forensic psychiatric patients – formerly called the criminally insane – largely hidden from public view. Hence the title of my new documentary about them: Out of Mind, Out of Sight: inside the Brockville Psych.
Here's how the hiding works: a person suffering from mental illness commits a horrific act of violence. We glimpse them only briefly in sinister media images when they are arraigned, glassy-eyed people in jail jump suits. Scary as hell. Then the hospital authorities make them disappear, swallow them up in forensic psychiatric hospitals for years, never to be seen again by most of us. You never meet the Vincent Li's (the so-called "bus be-header") of this world or hear them speak. They are remembered as monsters, not human beings suffering horribly from a devastating illness.
As a filmmaker who has helped de-stigmatize many of his subjects over the years, I think the secrecy is a terrible idea. You cannot de-stigmatize people by hiding them away. The message it sends to the public is: "We think these people are such freaks we dare not show them to you."
In my two documentaries on forensic psychiatry (the first was last's year's NCR: Not Criminally Responsible) you finally get to know some patients intimately. They reveal a dramatically different view: the man emerging from the so-called monster.
People are usually surprised to discover there is a great deal that can be done for most patients. I was stunned when I first witnessed the treatment process. Patients arrived "floridly psychotic" at an institution, literally "raving lunatics", spouting gibberish, often potentially violent. But after just two or three injections of anti-psychotic drugs combined with other treatments, many literally "returned to their senses" to a significant degree within two or three months. For a layman this dramatic change – what I call the Jekyll and Hyde transformation – is almost magical to behold.
After 3 1/2 years in the forensic psychiatric system, I have come to believe the mental health community has made a grave mistake by hiding these patients and the extraordinary treatments away from the public. There is help. There is hope. People should know this; it would help allay their fears.
Ironically, despite the best of intentions (because what motivates most hospital staff is a desire to protect their patients) I believe they are in large part responsible for the stigmatization of their patients.
As a communications policy, hiding has been a disaster. It's chiefly why the public sees these patients as monsters. People fear the unknown. Without positive images to balance their views, they cling to the grotesque stereotypes perpetuated by the media in such films as Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, although these patients pose only a very minor threat to public safety.
We have demonstrated that our films can help. They can actually change closed minds. Take the remarkable response to Sean Clifton, principal subject of NCR, who tried to stab a woman to death. Post-telecast, he has not had a single negative reaction, only well-wishers approaching him in the street. When he attended a Toronto screening the audience of 750 gave him a standing ovation. Best of all, his victim and her family forgave him after seeing the film and now spread the word at public appearances.
Some victims even go beyond forgiveness: "There is nothing to forgive," I was told by a family member of the victim of Michael Stewart, a patient in Out of Mind, Out Of Sight. "He was ill. You don't forgive someone for contracting cancer."
Perhaps it's time for forensic psychiatric patients to stop hiding; stop the apologizing; stop begging for understanding and start demanding that people recognize they are called patients for good reason – because they are not evil, just ill.