Sick symptoms of a failing system

By Daniel Pagan

The mental health system let us down once again in Canada when Vince Li didn’t get the help he needed, leading to the brutal murder of Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus last July. Yet when the court sentenced Li to life in a psychiatric facility, many were upset since they thought he was going free. However, one has to remember that just because the court found him insane, it doesn’t mean he is free. Instead, he will be sent to a mental institution to receive treatment. He won’t just be released to society after his stay. There’ll be annual reviews and treatments and given his state, Li is not getting out for a long time. Instead of rallying against the sentence, McLean’s family and others who want to see Li jailed should ask the government and health-care professionals hard questions about why the mental health system wasn’t there to stop people like Li from falling though the net.

In 2005, Li was involuntarily admitted to an Ontario hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia after being found wandering on a Toronto highway. A doctor there declared he was a risk to harm himself or others, but Li fled with no one to stop him. There was no one to follow up on him or his progress. His bosses and family never took the time to ask him if he was all right. His former work bosses all said he seemed like a “quiet, hardworking” guy, even while he suffered from auditory hallucinations telling him to do horrible things. Friends and family of a suffering person often ignore early warning signals. In this respect, we all screwed up. But why do we allow that to happen?

There aren’t enough doctors, psychologists and care attendants to look after the patients and ensure they get the care they need. There are not enough beds and institutions for people who need to receive treatment. Canada spends only five per cent of its health budget on mental health services ­– low among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. That translates into poor results: a Fraser Institute survey released in October 2008 showed that Canadians had to wait more than 18.6 weeks for psychiatric care. It is very difficult for someone with a mental illness to get help when they need it. Here in Calgary, there is no psychiatric hospital. It is wrong that Canada, a country with a large health budget, doesn’t spend enough on mental healthcare.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50 per cent of people with schizophrenia aren’t properly treated and wind up in jail or homeless. There is considerable stigma against individuals with schizophrenia. That presents a barrier to individuals who want to get involved in society and be productive citizens. Stereotypes and the lack of resources is what’s hurting the system, not a lack of strict laws.

It is less effective to keep Li jailed for the remainder of his life than ensuring that he gets the proper treatment. The Globe and Mail reported that mental illness strikes one in every five Canadians at some point in their lives and can cause up to 35 million lost workdays a year in Canada. It’s a problem affecting all of Canada and so it’s something we need to work on. The mental health system failed to ensure Li got the help he needed before it was too late. An eye for an eye sentence wouldn’t do anything to prevent vulnerable people from having breakdowns.

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