The Challenge of Mental Illness in the Justice System Part 3: Victims

This is the third in a three-part post about a talk given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, about the interactions between people who are mentally ill (her term) and the justice system of Canada. Part 1 briefly discussed the history of the treatment of people with mental illness in Canada, and then described the current situation with regards to the criminal court system. Part 2 discussed the interactions between people with a mental illness and the civil courts. Part 3 will discuss the mentally ill as victims of the justice system.

This post will discuss violence against people with disabilities.

All quotes are from my notes and are not verbatim.

Many Canadians will be familiar with several stories of people diagnosed with a mental health condition being killed by police officers. Byron DeBassige, 28, was shot and killed by police officers in February 2008 (Toronto). Howard Hyde, 45, was tasered and killed by police officers in November 2007 (Halifax). Ashley Smith, 19, committed suicide in jail while prison guards watched in October 2007 (Kitchener). Reyal Jensen Jardine-Douglas, 25, was shot and killed by police officers in August 2010 (Toronto). While Robert Dziekanski does not appear to have had a mental illness, his “irrational” behaviour after having been detained in the airport for 10 hours is the reason police officers gave for tasering him multiple times and leaving him to die in October 2007 (Vancouver).

The Chief Justice specifically focused on the case of Byron DeBassige, reading from the Toronto Star article I linked above. She went on to state that she believes that the police wouldn’t have shot DeBassige over two lemons and a knife had they known he was ill. In light of the other cases I’ve linked to, I don’t agree with her – in several of those cases the police were firmly and repeatedly told the person they killed was mentally ill. I don’t believe police officers as a whole have risen above the ableist prejudices that lead to psychophobia (fear of people with mental health conditions), simply because there’s been no real attempt in Canada to combat it.1

The Chief Justice went on to discuss how prejudice and fear can affect people with a mental illness: “I’d like to shift the focus to millions of mentally ill people who do not break the criminal law, who remain untreated or inadequately treated, and at liberty. Too often they are simply victims: Victims of discrimination, ignorance, societal inefficiency, and sometimes of violence that too often ends with their death.”

As a woman with a diagnosed mental health condition, I’m twice as likely as my non-disabled counterparts to be the victim of a violent crime, including rape. [Source is PDF] I’m also significantly less likely to be violent than my counterparts. And yet, even on FWD (in comments that are unapproved), it’s not rare for people to equate my diagnosis with abuse. It’s not uncommon for me to be sitting in a classroom of people who know that I campaign for disability rights and have talked a lot about the prejudices that face people with mental health conditions and have my classmates talk about how “crazy” people are violent. After learning I was going to this talk, one of my classmates told me that, should she ever murder someone, she’d claim temporary insanity and just spend a few months in care and then be released. All I could think of was Ashley Smith, who threw crab apples at the postman and died in jail.

The stark truth is too often we discriminate against the ill. We pass them lying on the street but ignore pleas for housing, reluctant to give them jobs even when they’ve struggled valiantly to overcome their illness. We marganilise them.

We need to know more if we’re going to avoid the specter of mentally ill as victims. Related to this is the lack of social coordination on behalf of the mentally ill. All who play a role in an ill person’s life must find ways to communicate and talk to each other. They fall through the cracks. There must be better communication between agencies if we are to prevent more mentally ill people from becoming victims.

This last quote is, in sum, why I felt a lot of frustration with this talk. Throughout, the Chief Justice talked about agencies, she talked about police officers, parole officers, and judges, she talked about what people can do. At no point did she quote an actual person with a mental illness. At no point did she suggest that people talk to those of us who have a mental health condition, and find out what we want and need. At no point did she talk about attempts by the justice system to include people with mental health conditions on tribunals or in the discussions about how the justice system can do better on this issue. Nothing about us without us really shouldn’t be a daring concept, but it seems it is.

Despite all of my complaining, I actually did enjoy this talk. It’s not very often that people admit that prejudice and fear play a strong part in the way people with mental illnesses are treated, by society in general and the justice system in particular. As a Canadian, it makes me happy that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is speaking about this, because her authority lends weight to what she’s speaking of, and because I know the Supreme Court is aware of the issues that she’s raising. I also appreciate that she takes the time to speak on this issue often. I was recently emailed the text of a similar talk she gave in 2005. Making law students and lawyers (as well as the general public) aware of these issues may help prevent future cases like Ashley Smith’s suicide.

I would obviously like that more awareness of these issues was addressed in a helpful and thoughtful manner in the newspapers, in classrooms, and on the internet. Chief Justice McLachlin is doing good work, and I’m very glad of the opportunity presented by Dalhousie University to see her talk in person.

Dal News wrote about this presentation as well.

  1. There is, however, an attempt to point out that “mental illness costs Canadians $51 Billion a year“. I don’t think we battle prejudice against mental health conditions by talking about how much it costs, especially since I think it would be more accurate to say “discrimination and stigma related to mental health conditions costs the economy $51 Billion a year”, but what do I know? I’m just a crazy lady.

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