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Prevent Future Shootings by Focusing on Mental Illness, Not Tighter Security

10/30/2014 12:53 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST

Whenever there is a tragedy like the murders of Warrent Office Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu South of Montreal and Cpl Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa, the pundits come out of the closet. And, in my opinion, the most absurd was that of Dr. Hubert Van Gijseghem, a Montreal psychologist who suggested that the two perpetrators might be suffering from schizophrenia. Of course, that was without benefit of ever meeting the two. Neither had ever been given a diagnosis by a psychiatrist from what I've read.

In that same article, Dr. Paul-André Lafleur, a psychiatrist with the Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montréal, disputes that diagnosis. Hamilton psychiatrist, Dr David Laing Dawson, who wrote a blog on the radicalization of youth the day before the Ottawa event, replied to a critic who chastised him for not calling these people mentally ill. He said that as a psychiatrist, "I cannot ethically diagnose someone I have not examined." In an e-mail follow-up interview, he said:

These two perpetrators were troubled young men with troubled histories, clearly angry at their circumstances, blaming others, and seeking solutions,  explanations, and retribution. Even though not Muslim by faith or culture, they found solutions and explanations and calls to action in the hate literature of extreme Islam, of IS.

Each may or may not have had a definable, treatable mental illness. There is no question each needed help. What can we rationally do to prevent another occurrence?

We can improve our mental health services, and the access to them. We can find a way to bar such hate literature, even in digital form, from finding its way to the laptops of Canadians. Our Mosques can be alert to the sudden, intense and extreme devotion of a stranger in their midst. And we can tinker with our security measures; but let us not for a moment imagine that more guns is the answer. And let us take heart from the wonderful and very Canadian outpouring of grief, solidarity, and community provoked by these two tragedies.

And while many are calling the two men who committed these acts mentally ill or having mental health problems (a vague term that I've never really understood), an Ottawa security expert, Rafal Rohozinski, told the CBC's As it Happens that "in both cases we had individuals with a history of mental illness." And he went on to say "That's a fact that we should be focusing on before we start looking for a national security solution to what may actually be a mental health strategy solution." 

Now here's the thing. Canada does have a mental health strategy that was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. In May 2012, the Commission released its Changing Directions, Changing Lives, which they billed as "the first mental health strategy for Canada. It aims to help improve the mental health and well-being of all people living in Canada, and to create a mental health system that can truly meet the needs of people living with mental health problems and illnesses and their families."

For the past 2 1/2 years, we've had a strategy but I haven't really seen any changes. I'm not sure what they are doing to get their recommendations implemented as this federal government agency has no legislative power whatsoever. To be fair, they have done a great deal on mental health in the workplace and on stigma and housing but what is needed are adequate hospital beds and better access to psychiatrists and other professionals. So many of the mentally ill are homeless or in jail. And despite an excellent report on the role of family caregivers, families are still left out when their ill relative is receiving care.

We just have to look at Ontario which I am most familiar with to see the extent to which government ignores the plight of those with mental illness. Report after report on how to make improvements have been ignored including ones that would cost very little money. 

While we Canadians look smugly at the U.S. with its lack of proper universal health coverage, it turns out that for mental illness reform, they are doing so much better than we are. Republican Congressman, Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania has introduced a bill into Congress called Helping Families In Mental Health Crisis Act. His bill is co-sponsored by 108 members of Congress -- 72 Republicans and 36 Democrats. Over 30 organizations have written letters of support for his bill including police, psychologists, psychiatrists and others. The Democrats have put forth their own bill on mental health reform.

They are actively debating the issues and the solutions while we spout platitudes. They put us to shame.

Given all the mental health talk about the killing of Warrant Officer Vincent and Cpl. Cirillo, I have a suggestion. What better way to honour their memory than to seriously discuss and take action on improving services to those who suffer these afflictions. Enough of the reports that sit on shelves. It is time to actually do something.

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