Society at crossroads with the mentally ill

We, as a society, have come to a great crossroads. This statement may seem melodramatic, but if there is one thing that this case is not lacking in, it is dramatics. On one hand we have the innocent man young who was brutally murdered in his sleep, slaughtered in a fashion that few could imagine outside their nightmares. On the other we have the grieving mother turned activist, who donates every ounce of energy that she has towards seeing that her son’s killer suffers the full force of our criminal justice system. And at the center of it all we have the killer, a man who seemingly acted without any motive or even any humanity for that matter.

I feel that it is time that we, decide what our policy is regarding Vincent Li.

It seems to me that to the most cynical among us the term “not criminally responsible” is nothing more than a sham. For these people, the excuse of mental illness is nothing more than a piece of wool that criminals pull over the eyes of soft-hearted liberal judges. They would have us lock people up based entirely on the crime that they have committed, as everything a criminal ever has to say in their defence is merely a sob story, and should be discounted.

There are those who seem to me to be more moderate, like Carol deDelley and those who support her in her crusade to instate “Tim’s Law” as public policy. Many of these people acknowledge that Li was suffering from untreated schizophrenia when he attacked Tim McLean, and was plagued by hallucinations so severe that he couldn’t form a true intent to kill. Whether they believe that Li will remain too great a threat no matter what treatment he receives, however, or simply think his actions too horrible, the people in this camp also believe that Li should remain incarcerated for the remainder of his life, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons than the more cynical crowd.

There is a third school of thought on the subject, which I ascribe too, though judging by the public reaction to Li recently being granted the right to visit Selkirk while escorted by a nurse and a peace officer, the people who share this opinion are few and far between.

Schizophrenia is a very serious disease, even when compared to other mental illnesses. People who are manic-depressive or suffer from bipolar disorder can attest to what it is like to have their emotions run rampant, running to extreme highs and lows for reasons completely beyond their control. But what happens when your entire reality becomes distorted? What happens when the world that you are experiencing isn’t the same world that is being experienced by everyone else?

None of us, save for those actually suffering from schizophrenia, can even begin to fathom what being trapped in such a false reality is like. Schizophrenia is a disease that isolates you from the real world, and that isolation only serves to worsen the disease. People suffering from untreated schizophrenia often either don’t believe that they need help, or they simply don’t trust anyone to help them. So the hallucinations grow worse as time drags on, and sometimes get so bad that they drive the afflicted to commit violent acts.

There was a time not so long ago when the only option we had was to lock up schizophrenics in institutions, in the interest of public safety. They were potentially dangerous, we didn’t understand them, and we just didn’t know what else to do with them. We don’t live in that time anymore though. We have made incredible strides in understanding and treating all mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. If you need evidence of this, you need simply look at the people who are now living with mental illness, yet are still living as functional members of society. Their numbers are far greater than even a few short decades ago, and you likely couldn’t even pick them out in a crowd.

Yet still, some stigma towards mental illness remains, and when we see a case like Vincent Li’s it is easy to understand why. Tim McLean died a horrible death, and it would be foolish for us to expect Carol deDelley to ever take a sympathetic stance towards her son’s killer. But there is a reason that we don’t allow victims or their families to dole out the punishment for those who wronged them, otherwise we would see everyone from petty shoplifters to teenage vandals locked up for their entire lives. Let’s face it, many of us have a vengeful streak a mile wide.

I feel that we need to stop stigmatizing mental illness, because by doing so we could discourage people like Vincent Li from seeking treatment for their disease when it is still at a manageable level. I think that if we decide that Vincent Li should be locked up forever, no matter how well he responds to his treatment and regardless of any progress he makes, then we have allowed schizophrenia to claim two lives where it may have only claimed one.