Hermione Wilson, Senior Reporter
In a July 2013 study, Public Health Canada noted the dramatic rise in mentally disordered offenders entering Canada’s correctional system. According to the federal agency, 38 per cent of newly-admitted offenders have a history of or are suffering from some form of psychological dysfunction.
In August of this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that current laws fail to protect the public and victims from violent, mentally ill offenders. He announced legislation that would allow courts to designate people who are found not criminally responsible for violent crimes as “high risk” and hold them longer without a formal review. Harper made this decision soon after meeting with the ex-wife of Allan Schoenborn, a British Columbia man who was deemed not criminally responsible for killing his three children.
Judging by the big newsmakers of the last few years, it seems fair to assume that there is a link between mental illness and violent crimes. Take the Navy Yard shooting in Washington this September. The perpetrator, Aaron Alexis, suffered from delusions and believed he was being controlled by low-frequency electromagnetic waves. The 20-year-old shooter who took 20 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School a year ago was obsessed with the Columbine school shootings and is said to have suffered from “significant mental issues.” In Canada, Richard Kachkar, the Toronto man who killed a police officer while driving a stolen snowplow in 2011, was recently found not criminally responsible for the crime he committed due to the extreme psychosis he was suffering from at the time.
But a study done by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health suggests that the root cause of violent acts is more likely to be alcohol and drug abuse than a serious mental condition. The study suggests that the rise in mentally disordered offenders could be explained by the criminalization of mental illness, rather than a marked propensity for violence among the mentally ill.
“As yet, there is no consistent evidence to support the hypothesis that mental illness (e.g. schizophrenia or depression) that is uncomplicated by substance abuse is a significant risk factor for violence or criminality,” states the CAMH study. The strongest predictor of violent and criminal behaviour is a history of violent and criminal behaviour, it says.
We must be cautious about drawing conclusions based on a few high-profile cases. For one thing, the term “mental illness” covers a highly diverse group of disorders ranging from mild depression to the more severe condition of schizophrenia. It would also be wrong to assume that because Richard Kachkar was suffering from what seems to have been schizophrenia when he killed a police officer, all those who suffer from schizophrenia are potential murderers.
As a society, we should take the increased number of mentally ill offenders as a sign of trouble of a different kind. It is a sign that those suffering from mental illnesses may be falling through the cracks and that the prison system is the only net left to catch them once they do. Incidents like the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith, whose self-harming activities had increased while she was held in solitary confinement, should make it clear that the prison system is not equipped to treat people with these conditions. Before we rush to lock up the “crazy” members of our community, we need to take a good hard look at what we are and aren’t doing to support the most vulnerable members of our society.
As for Harper’s proposed legislation, it shows questionable leadership on the prime minister’s part. It’s one thing for the public to draw conclusions about the connection between mental illness and violent offenders in Canada. It’s quite another thing for our government to let the fear and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness and those who suffer from it to dictate policy decisions.