Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tragic cases show how much we misunderstand mental illness


An opinion piece published in the January 8th edition of The Chronicle Herald:
By Lezlie Lowe (pictured)

How many times have I heard this?

"She had everything."

Last time was New Year’s Day, when a family member and I were chatting about the November suicide of Daron Richardson, the 14-year-old daughter of Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson.

Daron was a top student and hockey ace. She had, as it goes, everything.

Well, sure she did. She had pools, private school and iPods, but not her health — not her mental health.

It’s not uncommon to hear this logic tossed around: the better off a person is, the less likely he or she will suffer from psychiatric disorders.

And it’s true; mental distress is more prevalent in lower income households in Canada. But wealth, by no means, acts as a prophylactic against depression or psychosis. Just ask the family of Ali Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former Shah of Iran, who suffered from depression and shot himself Tuesday.

Mental illness isn’t a plague of the underprivileged or the fate of those who aren’t smart enough or committed enough or canny enough to seek out help, take their medication and stay in treatment.

Mental illness can be tweaked by our actions, sure. But it isn’t a choice. Ask yourself: if your best friend developed pancreatic cancer, would you ever say, "I just can’t understand it. He had everything."

And what of convicted killer Glen Douglas Race?

Race was a normal Dartmouth kid. Did he have everything? Perhaps not yachts, ponies and private jets, but by all accounts he had all the things most of us need to get by. And more than many have. Nevertheless, Race faced steady psychotic episodes. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2001 in his second year at Dalhousie University.

To say Race’s illness was debilitating is an understatement. Race has been sentenced to life in prison for the upstate New York killing of Darcy Manor, a husband and father of two. He also stands accused of the first-degree murder of two Halifax men, Michael Paul Knott and Trevor Charles Brewster. Race’s parents and brother spoke publicly Wednesday, offering condolences to the families of the victims and raising this issue: Race needed more help than his family could give. And, more importantly, Race needed more help than the Nova Scotia mental health care system could offer.

Several families are in mourning now, Glen’s mother Donna Race said, because her son didn’t get the care his illness required.

The Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act, which could have forced Race into care and kept him from harming others, didn’t become law until July 2007, two months after the then 26-year-old was arrested trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border with a rifle.

That policy is in place now. And it’s something. But it’s not enough. Our financial commitment to mental health still demonstrates a grave misunderstanding of its pervasiveness and seriousness.

As the Race family pointed out this week, in a painful and oft-repeated reminder, the system needs cash.

One in five Nova Scotians suffers from mental illness and Nova Scotia spends less than five percent of its health care budget on mental health.

In June, auditor general Jacques Lapointe released a report saying the province was failing to meet mental health treatment standards. Moreover, those failures were inadequately unmonitored, with no plan for a fix.

In short? We treat mental health like a joke; like it’ll clear up on its own.

Especially, we imagine, when those suffering from it have everything.

(llowe@herald.ca)

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