Already in 2018, Canadians have been spectators to some horrific scenes south of the border.
The school shooting in Florida unleashed a nasty, ignorant public discussion about the nature of mental illness, the rights of the mentally ill, and the way they’re treated by society. While some of the discussion may lead to positive reforms, the tone and language used has not only further stigmatized those with mental illness, it’s demonized them.
Earlier, in January, a video surfaced of security guards escorting an obviously incapacitated woman wearing just a flimsy hospital gown outside a Baltimore hospital. With temperatures near the freezing mark, the video went viral and caused an uproar. The woman’s mother, who hadn’t been notified that her daughter was in hospital, found her only when she saw this video on social media.
It’s easy to think these things happen only in the US, with its gun culture and lack of public health care. It would be easy, but it would be wrong.
Here in Alberta, the incredibly tragic news coming out of the trial of Christine Longridge put the spotlight – once again – on the woefully inadequate way that our health system deals with psychotic illnesses. For those of us who have a family member with such an illness, our worst nightmare is that our loved one will harm someone in such a fashion. Even the judge choked back tears as he described the situation as beyond tragic, calling it “a catastrophe.” What happened to the Longridge family breaks our hearts as much as it strengthens our resolve to bring reform to the mental health “system.”
Alberta has seen other instances where system failures have resulted in deaths. Before Matthew de Grood killed five people at a house party in Calgary in 2014, his father – a senior police officer – had considered having him picked up on a mental health warrant but decided against it, knowing it would have been futile. What does it say about our system when even those most involved don’t trust it will help?
Likewise, we shouldn’t assume that patients here aren’t discharged before they’re ready, and “dumped” in homeless shelters. Ask anyone working in a social agency and they’ll tell you it happens, and not infrequently. Among our own group we’ve heard of patients – still in a delusional state – being referred to homeless shelters, foisted on unprepared families or otherwise abandoned, even at -30 degree temperatures.
The mental health review is starting to address some systemic problems, but will it be enough, and will it bring the right kind of change? We need mental health reform that recognizes the nature of serious mental illness and is focussed on what’s best for the patient. We need to address the inability to get early treatment, and we need families – the lifelong caregivers – to have a voice in the treatment of their loved ones. A good sign is that family members are being called upon more to tell our stories – let’s hope that will result in meaningful change.