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'Not Criminally Responsible' Patients Come Out of the Shadows

10/03/2014 12:28 EDT | Updated 12/03/2014 05:59 EST

Most high-profile NCR patients -- that is, sufferers of mental illness who have committed horrific acts of violence and have been declared "not criminally responsible" by the courts -- are usually kept well-hidden from public view. NCR patients may be the most unpopular people in Canada at the moment -- think of Vincent Li, the so-called "bus beheader" and Richard Kachkar, nicknamed the "snowplow killer." Most live in fear of being spotted by the public, for if they step outside the hospital even to take a brief walk on the grounds, a great hue and cry often ensues.

But on Wednesday, October 8, another high-profile NCR patient, Sean Clifton, who tried his best to stab to death a complete stranger because his psychosis led him to believe he had to kill "the prettiest girl in the mall," will bravely step on stage to face the public after the screening of my documentary NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, in which he is featured. The film is playing at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema during Mental Illness Awareness Week, with its companion film Out of Mind, Out of Sight screening the next night, October 9.

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Sean Clifton inside the Brockville Mental Health Centre. Photo by Geoff George.

With feelings about NCR patients running so high in Canada, what sort of reception can he expect? Can you imagine Vincent Li or Richard Kachkar getting a standing ovation in a movie theatre? Or being greeted afterwards by audience members with hugs, teary thank-yous, even requests for their autograph? That is what normally happens to Clifton when he attends such screenings.

While his fellow sufferers hide in the shadows, Clifton and the other subjects of the two documentaries walk freely in Brockville, Ontario, where the films were shot inside the Brockville Mental Health Centre. They enjoy a remarkable degree of acceptance by the community and are repeatedly approached by well-wishers. Since the release of the films, they have not heard a single negative comment.

It wasn't always this way. In the spring of 2013, the town was up in arms over the hospital's practice of releasing patients with violent histories into the community. The local newspaper had begun "outing" patients living in the area, publishing a front-page story with a photo of two angry neighbours standing in front of a home where one of the patients lived; as a result everybody in town could find him.

Then on May 9 of that year, NCR: Not Criminally Responsible screened at the Brockville Arts Centre and around 500 people showed up -- a lot for a town of 22,000. Sean's victim Julie Bouvier and her parents were also in attendance. Patients were forbidden to attend by the hospital, which was concerned about the stress of a public screening and negative reaction. This included Sean Clifton, who was not permitted to watch a film about his own story in his own town!

To everyone's surprise, the Brockville audience loved the film -- and Sean Clifton. From Ron Zajac, the Recorder Reporter who observed the crowd's tremendous affection and support for both remorseful Sean and brave Julie: "it's the mark of a great piece of cinema when something like that can happen...[NCR is] well worth watching if you care about an honest debate on mental health."

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Sean Clifton at home with roommate Will Bilow. Photo by Geoff George.

Since the screening (and the release of the second film Out of Mind, Out of Sight), Sean and the other principals in the two films are experiencing a degree of empathy and understanding from the community that would be the envy of most NCR patients. The hospital credits the two films for this.

I'd like to claim credit for this wonderful, remarkable development. But much of the credit is due to the original vision of our consultant Dr. Lisa Ramshaw, a forensic psychiatrist from CAMH in Toronto who was convinced the time had come to stop hiding patients from the public, although most of her colleagues disagreed. Had it not been for her persistence, mentoring and prodding, neither film would exist. Sean and I -- and all NCR patients in Canada -- owe her big time.

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