Bill C-54 and repeating the errors of history

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the problems we now face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.

Throughout human history, the criminalization of mental illness has assumed various forms: burnings at the stake, executions, lobotomies, overcrowded prisons, hellacious conditions in insane asylums. A common thread to all of these examples is a lack of understanding around psychic disorders and treatment options. The result, invariably, has been ineffective, inhumane policies that have instilled a profound social contempt for the mentally ill – as evidenced by words like “lunatic,” “insane,” “wretched,” “demented,” “idiot,” and “maniac,” all of which have been used at various historical junctures to describe individuals with psychoses and other psychic ailments.

History and scientific inquiry should have taught us by now that the criminalization of mental illness is unhelpful at best. Yet here we go again.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s Bill C-54, the “Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act”, is the latest brainchild of the federal Tories ostensibly designed to keep us “safer.” Here are some reasons why this legislation is deeply problematic, and will almost certainly fail:

1) It at best misinterprets, but more likely demonstrates our federal government’s ignorance of the legal term “not criminally responsible” (NCR).

2) It ascribes guilt, and foists a retributive, fallacious interpretation of “justice” on individuals who have been legally absolved of criminal wrongdoing. (For your reference, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Justice Minister, this is what “not criminally responsible” means.)

3) The bill does nothing to PREVENT future tragedies – like the 2008 beheading of Tim Maclean aboard a Greyhound bus, or the horiffic demise of the children of Guy Turcotte and Allan Schoenborn. (And there is substantial evidence that the Schoenborn killings, among others, were indeed preventable.) Instead, it merely delays the re-integration of NCR perpetrators whom courts deem “high-risk” back into society, with no commensurate improvement in the quality of treatment they receive. Meanwhile, the Harper administration is taking no action to improve access to and quality of mental health treatment among the general population, and more worrisomely, continues to neglect a dangerous spike in the proportion of inmates in Canadian prisons who suffer mental disorders, and who are NOT receiving the care that’s necessary both for their rehabilitation, and for the safety of Canadians.

It seems to me the most rational approach to reducing future violence by sufferers of mental illness (a rarity to begin with), is the improvement of our mental health services. Irrespective of our political leanings, can we not all agree that we’d be wiser to pursue a policy of prevention, rather than retribution?

4) This legislation reinforces stigma, a fear on the part of those with mental health issues, that they will experience shame, ostracization within the community, or even a deterioration of career prospects, as a consequence of asking for help. One might reasonably argue that stigma is the single greatest obstacle to timely and effective treatment of mental health issues, and that the elimination of stigma needs to be the foremost priority of a prudent mental health strategy in this country. Unfortunately, Bill C-54 will only exacerbate the problem.

By presenting Bill C-54 under the umbrella of “Tough On Crime,” this government is further criminalizing mental illness, reinforcing the associated negative stigma. In this sense, the new legislation is not only ineffective, but counter-productive. Rather than making Canadians safer, this bill will likely endanger more of us unnecessarily. 

5) Finally, and in keeping with Harper et al.’s apparent disdain for evidence-based decision making, Bill C-54 is a response not to systemic issues, trends, or substantive data, but to a few gruesome headline-grabbing incidents. And, with all due respect to the victims and their loved ones, a few sensational events, taken out of context, will almost never lay the groundwork for sound policy. Good legislation focuses on the rule and pays less heed to the exception, not vice-versa.

Some thoughts on Vincent Li, and Tim’s Law

I can scarcely imagine the anguish that the family of Tim Maclean must have experienced upon learning of his death. Likewise, I can appreciate the victims’ longing for personal accountability, and their feelings of rage, bitterness, and disgust with the verdict of “not criminally responsible” applied to Vincent Li. It’s easy to see why, in the minds of Tim Mclean’s parents, Vincent Li remains a dangerous, volatile offender, a barbarian who ought to remain locked away for the rest of his  life. After all, life is precisely the irreplaceable asset of which Li deprived their beloved son, on that fateful night in 2008.

The sentiment behind “Tim’s Law” – which would see mentally ill killers institutionalized for the rest of their lives – is abundantly clear to me, once I walk a mile in the shoes of the grieving Maclean family. But unfortunately, at the foundation of Tim’s Law lie a pair of common but mistaken assumptions: first, that people suffering with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses – including Li – are incapable of recovery; and second, that Li is “nuts” and will represent a perpetual danger to society once released. On the contrary, full recovery from schizophrenia is possible, Li has thus far responded well to treatment and medication, and mental health professionals have determined he is very unlikely to re-offend.

Considering the above information, let’s assess this picture from another crucial viewpoint.

Vincent Li is a mentally ill patient, and every day, he is forced to reconcile with the gruesome attack he committed, the knowledge that he extinguished the life of an innocent young man and inflicted irreparable harm on the man’s family, and the memory of the traumatic incident itself. Imagine that you murdered someone while sleepwalking, recalled the event upon waking, and were forced to live with the enormity of your own actions for the rest of your life, and you may begin to comprehend Vincent Li’s state of mind. How would you feel? Could you sleep at night? Could you even begin to carry on living? How would you react if Vincent Li were a close friend of yours, or a member of your family?

In a May 2012 interview with Chris Summerville, president of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, Li expressed remorse for his actions, and a desire to one day seek forgiveness from Maclean’s loved ones. (Imagine being in THAT position, by the way.) Tim Maclean was a victim of Vincent Li’s mental illness. And Li suffers from a disease, one he did not choose, but one he is working diligently to overcome. The application of stiffer penalties to NCR individuals wrongly inculpates them, reinforces stigma by criminalizing mental illness, and will do virtually nothing to mitigate crime or violence in our society.

Atrocities by mentally ill Canadians are extraordinarily rare, and we possess the technical knowledge as a society to prevent many of the infrequent acts of violence that are attributable to mental illness. But we need to start by demanding more of our elected leaders, not our overburdened correctional facilities.

Author’s note: This post originally attributed a statement to Einstein regarding the “definition of insanity.” Although quotes to this effect are common in pop culture, it turns out that there is no evidence Einstein ever made the assertion. The post has accordingly been altered, and now includes a statement Einstein did, in fact, make, the effect of which is similar.