Letter to W5

Written by Dr. Ian Dawe on . Posted in Forensic Mental Health

RE: Segment titled ‘Get out of jail free’ featured in W5 episode broadcasted on November 30, 2013

I want to express our deepest sympathies to Christine Russell and her family for their loss. We can all agree this was a tragic ending that potentially could have been avoided.

However, I strongly disagree the problem lies within the forensic mental health system.
Unfortunately the W5 piece offered nothing more than a sensational overview of a very complex issue and the proposed Federal legislation to change rules around the Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) designation.

The reality is none of the cases featured by W5 and the Federal government in support of changes to legislation would have had a different ending if these proposed changes had been in place at the time of these featured incidents. These are not individuals who had been previously declared NCR or had received care within the forensic mental health system. These are people who did not get appropriate treatment and were allowed to deteriorate and become more and more ill.

If we are really serious about trying to prevent these types of tragedies we must look at the problem and the facts, honestly. We can either react to tragedy or we can support measures to help mitigate or prevent them from occurring. I would hope we all agree the latter is the most appropriate course of action.

I understand it is hard for the general public, without knowledge of mental illness or the forensic mental health system, to have sympathy when following the cases highlighted on W5. We must remember these people are ill and deserve treatment and support. Using terms like ‘killer’ and ‘get out of jail free’ detract from the great work being done by organizations like Bell and its Let’s Talk initiative to eradicate mental health discrimination and stigma.

It is also unfortunate the segment did not include the perspective of anyone connected to the forensic mental health system in Ontario.

By adding to the misguided notion that being declared NCR is a way to escape justice or that mental illness is an easy ruse for people to embrace is not factual and adds to the stigma of mental illness. There are many cases of people who have a history of mental illness who were fit to stand trial. Landing at an NCR designation is a complicated and intensely scrutinized process.  These individuals who have been found NCR receive long-term and extensive legal, medical, psychiatric and community services and support.  
Discussion regarding people with mental illness who come in contact with the law is welcome and necessary. However, the conversation must be informed by evidence and include the opinions of the experts and organizations who provide mental health care.

Dr. Ian Dawe
Physician-in-Chief
Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences