Mental health at issue

There is little likelihood that 44-year-old Canadian Richard Krachkar knows, or knows of, 21-year old American Jared Loughner. But the recent shooting tragedy in Tucson, Arizona and the death of Toronto police sergeant Ryan Russell involving a stolen snowplow allegedly driven on a very cold night by a barefoot Krachkar now give Krachkar and Loughner a common link. The devastation for which both are alleged to be responsible is widely believed to be the result of mental illness.

So while some American pundits and many in the blogosphere speculate or rant about any poisoned political rhetoric that could have fired up the alleged shooter of 19 people, six of whom were fatalities, the much more important argument in this case has to be what America intends to do about its very weak structure for mental health care as it intersects with its culture of gun ownership.

While Canada has a comparatively better health care system for treating mental illness, the handling of the tragic events leading to Sgt. Russell’s death, in which Krachkar was shot at several times by police and eventually wounded, again points to the fact that we still do not have the right protocols in place for dealing with people in volatile situations who are suffering from mental illness.

Over the years, police response to crises involving people with mental illness has too often ended in tragedy whether for police officers or for the mentally ill. Only one day before Sgt. Russell’s death, a reported 50 police officers responded to what was in effect a non-incident involving Mississauga resident Nigel Elder who is schizophrenic and bipolar. Elder and a friend were out getting pizza when a call was made to police about a man waving a gun. After a two-hour standoff during which Elder’s behaviour was clearly not the usual response of a person under stress in such a situation, police found that he was not in possession of any weapon.

Because of his illness Elder is known to police and a standard check would have likely led to a calmer resolution. Yet police officials did not consider their response heavy-handed. The standoff lasted some two hours because Elder, absolutely terrified of the police, refused to exit his car.

For far too long, general ignorance about what constitutes mental illness has kept a barrier between those who suffer from the various types of conditions from depression to addiction, from anxiety to schizophrenia, from bipolar disorder to dementia. The fact that people suffering from mental diseases exhibit discomforting, often unsettling and sometimes threatening behaviour leads many of us who do not fully understand the nature of these illnesses to turn our back on them. Yet, the startling fact is that at least one in every five Canadians experiences some form of mental illness at some point during his or her life. We all know someone who has battled some form of mental illness from mild depression all the way to more severe conditions.

Despite this, only one-third of those who need treatment or services receive them. Mental illness keeps half a million Canadians away from work each day, costing the Canadian economy $51-billion in lost productivity annually. Yet only five per cent of health care funding is directed to mental health care.

We need to keep the discussion about mental illness open so that understanding can continue to grow throughout the general population about what it means to have a mental illness. We also need to strongly encourage health policymakers to push an agenda of early diagnosis. As with any illness the earlier the diagnosis and treatment the less likely that it will advance to its worst possible stages. It is time to encourage individuals to consider having not only regular physical checkups for health maintenance but also mental health checkups for, especially in difficult times as we are now facing, there is always an increase in the number of people experiencing some form of mental ill health.

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