By Marvin Ross
The front page headline in my local paper recently caught my eye and made me shudder. Blazoned across the front was ‘If my neighbour can do this to my brother it can happen to anyone’: Man who gunned down neighbour not criminally responsible due to schizophrenia The subhead read “Friends and family of Nikko Sienna say court finding for Mark Duckett in 2019 shooting is an injustice.”
How often have we seen similar protests in various communities around North America? An innocent person (or more usually) a family member is killed by an untreated person with a serious mental illness and the rage is directed against the sick individual rather than the system that allows this? People want retribution and blood and begin to lobby against the judicial system for having a not criminally responsible disposition.
Ironically, there was supposed to be a solution to prevent this locally. In March 1997, a toddler was stabbed to death by his next door neighbour who thought he possessed the soul of her own son who had died of AIDS. Zachary Antidormi’s parents had called the police numerous times to complain of their neighbour, police took reports and that was as far as it got. Responding officers were unaware of previous calls and no treatment and/or hospitalizations was ever offered.
Out of the inquest that was held after the event, came the establishment of the Crisis Outreach and Support Team in Hamilton. This program pairs specially trained plain clothed police and mental health workers to attend crisis calls, defuse them and arrange long-term solutions. Sadly, from my own experiences and from what I’ve heard from others, they can take a couple of days to respond to calls.
Zachary’s mom, Lori Triano, was a psychology intern at the Hamilton Program for Schizophrenia and has dealt with her grief by devoting her practice to helping others grieving. She went on to become president of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. She did not rail against the law that sent her neighbour to hospital but she used her energy to do good. Most people do not have her education or understanding so we, as advocates, need to address these events head on.
Unfortunately, the focus of a lot of established mental health groups is to deny this violence reality and to point out that the majority of the mentally ill are victims rather than aggressors. True enough, but each event of violence nullifies all that good work and puts us back to square one. Let’s be realistic, a young untreated often homeless individual with schizophrenia can be very scary. Despite that, much of the advocacy focus has been to try to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness while ignoring the untreated.
It may be possible to generate sympathy for a depressed, quiet, reclusive group of people but not for the dishevelled homeless wandering the streets pan handling. Yes, they are someone’s child but the fear of them and the periodic violence that occurs generates very little sympathy.
The late Dr Julio Arboleda-Florez of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario was involved with the Open Doors Anti-Stigma Project begun by the World Psychiatric Association in 1998. In an editorial that he wrote in the November, 2003 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, he made the following comment based on those results.
He said “helping persons with mental illness to limit the possibilities that they may become violent, via proper and timely treatment and management of their symptoms and preventing social situations that might lead to contextual violence, could be the single most important way to combat the stigma that affects all those with mental illness.”
“while most myths about mental illness can be traced to prejudice and ignorance of the condition, enlightened knowledge does not necessarily translate into less stigma unless both the tangible and symbolic threats that mental illness poses are also eradicated. This can only be done through better education of the public and of mental health service consumers about the facts of mental illness and violence, together with consistent and appropriate treatment to prevent violent reactions. Good medication management should also aim to decrease the visibility of symptoms among patients (that is, consumers) and to provide better public education programs on mental health promotion and prevention.”
Dr E Fuller Torrey made similar comments in an article that he wrote in Schizophrenia Bulletin in June 2011 called “Stigma and Violence: Isn’t It Time to Connect the Dots?” He points out that despite increased understanding of what causes mental illness, stigma has increased. And he says that the reason for this is that violence by those with serious mental illness has increased which increases stigma. Like Dr Arboledo-Florez, he sees the solution in reducing the violence with proper treatment. Numerous studies have demonstrated that treatment will reduce violence in those who might become violent.
As advocates we must own up to this violence and push the fact that treatment is needed to help both the ill person and society. Everyone should have the right to be we as well as modern medicine can accomplish.