This last week, a psychiatric review board granted Vincent Li new freedoms during his annual assessment hearing, on the request of his psychiatric team. Li has been held at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre in Manitoba since 2008. In July of that year, Li suffered a psychotic episode while on a Greyhound bus, leading him to kill the passenger sitting beside him, a young man named Timothy McLean. It was a particularly gruesome attack: he stabbed McLean to death before beheading him. We were told that when he realized what he’d done, Li was horrified, and he begged to be killed himself.
Not surprisingly, Li was found to be not criminally responsible, and was brought to the Mental Health Centre for assessment and treatment. There he was diagnosed with schizophrenia—a condition he wasn’t even aware he had.
Apparently Li is doing well. We are told that he has responded well to treatments, and at each of his annual hearings his psychiatric team has recommended he be given more freedoms—and he is given them. This year his doctors called him “a model, non-violent patient,” and successfully recommended he be given unsupervised trips into Selkirk and reduced supervision for trips further away, and be moved from a secure area to an unlocked ward.
You might think this would fill us all with a sense of relief: being granted such freedoms must be a sure sign of Li’s progress. But such a response assumes a certain level of confidence in our mental health professionals.
For there was another response, and it was outrage. Conservative politicians have long branded Li a dangerous killer, and are urging the review board to reverse their decision and keep him locked up, where (they say) people like him belong.
Perhaps they’re frustrated because they recently passed a law to prevent this very thing from happening. On June 19, 2013, the Conservative government passed the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, allowing those held not criminally responsible to be treated as if they were, well, criminally responsible. The law allows the courts to give a “high risk” designation to those held not criminally responsible for violent acts. Being “high risk” comes with several restrictions, including denial of any discharge, even a conditional one with supervision.
Despite the law being retroactive, the courts did not feel it necessary to label Vince Li “high risk,” which should come as some comfort. But despite professional opinion, the Conservatives disagree. Now I don’t know about you, but when it comes to diagnosing the severity of a mental illness, I’d take the professional opinion of a psychiatric team over a politician any day, Conservative or otherwise.
If Li was held to be not criminally responsible, then let him be not criminally responsible. Let his psychiatric team do their work. If he has responded well to treatment and has proven to function well in society, then let him. If he was dangerous, then he’d be diagnosed as such, and kept under high security. But he’s not, so he shouldn’t be.
I honestly feel for Timothy McLean’s family. We all do. And I can only imagine what it must be like to feel like you’re being denied justice. We are taught that justice is served through punishment, yet the McLeans have no one to punish. It must be unbelievably frustrating. But punishment is not the only way to find justice and ensure public safety. It may not even be the best way.
If we want public safety, and if we want justice, then what we desperately need to do is actually deal with the problem. We need to create a robust mental health system, and finally put an end to our collective stigmatizing of mental health. We need to stop being scared of and embarrassed by mental illness and build up an effective mental health support system—one that could help those in need before they do harm to themselves or others. If we could do that, then people like Vincent Li wouldn’t end up killing, and people like Timothy McLean wouldn’t die.
Vincent Li has schizophrenia. Big deal, so do around 300,000 other Canadians. And that’s just one condition. One in 20 of us suffer from clinical depression. In fact, one out of every five of us suffers from some sort of mental health issue. It seems like we’re all in this together. If we funded effective mental health programs, we would all be healthier and more secure.
In vilifying Vincent Li, the Conservative government has crafted the image of a violent killer and made that person the poster boy for mental illness. If anything is criminal, it is this, and it does no one any good. The longer we rely, solely, on punishment as a way of ensuring public safety, the further we get from creating a safe and equal and just and healthy society.