We call them wackos, wingnuts, kooks and crazies.
And every time somebody does something that defies explanation, we assume he or she is nutty and should be thrown in the loony bin, the rubber room, the booby hatch, and kept there.
This is especially the case when someone opens fire in a school, murders his own kids, or starts shooting police and holes up in a backwoods cabin with an arsenal of weapons. There's no other possible reason except that the one responsible is psycho. A loon. A nut bar. In other words, mentally ill. Ergo, mentally ill people are obviously dangerous.
Well, some are, but perfectly sane people do bad things too. They do it out of hatred, love, rage, greed, sex or any of a litany of other human emotions and motivations. Most violent criminals are of sound mind.
The percentage of mentally ill who commit violent crimes is no higher than that of the rest of the population.
Those found not criminally responsible by reason of a mental disorder don't re-offend more frequently than any other demographic.
Indeed, our chances of being harmed by someone with a mental illness are remote.
I was reminded of all this a couple of years ago after penning what I thought at the time was an especially intelligent and therapeutic chest-pounding rant about the demented fruitcakes who (supposedly) are at the root cause of most of the world's problems.
After you write something like that, a sense of calm and liberation comes upon the soul, and the world seems a better place just for having said it. You sit back, well pleased with yourself, and wait for a collective "Hear hear!" to confirm the righteousness of your words.
I was in that zone when a letter arrived from the mother of a young man suffering the demons of mental illness, someone struggling but managing, surviving, making it. It was one of those "not for publication" letters, but she wanted me to know how words and assumptions like mine add to the stereotype, and how they can hurt.
In this context, and during a week when Canada is supposed to be having a "conversation" about the stigma of mental illness, the Harper government's newest chapter in its anti-crime book doesn't seem like it can do much good. According to Mr. Harper, and our MP Cathy McLeod, making it harder to release "high-risk, not criminally responsible" people will bring justice to victims.
We've had our share of violent, even depraved, crimes close to home and elsewhere in this province and country. It's arguable whether Allan Schoenborn, Robert Pickton, Russell Williams, Clifford Olson or David Ennis committed the most despicable acts. Only one of those, Schoenborn, was delusional. His psychosis makes him no more sympathetic than the rest, but he's atypical of the one in five Canadians suffering from various forms of mental illness.
I don't see how making someone wait three years for a review by a mental health board, and giving more power to judges to decide, will change much. Talk about what your government will do to prevent such terrible things from happening in the first place, and I'll listen.
What we've got to do, though, is stop stereotyping the mentally ill as born dangerous and in need of punishment.
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