12/26/2012 08:37 EST | Updated 02/24/2013 05:12 EST

Post-Sandy Hook, Don't Fear Those With Mental Illnesses

The Sandy Hook tragedy has got people talking worldwide. We may never know for certain if the suspect had a mental illness, but a lot of people are now wondering if mental illness could lead somebody to kill dozens of people. As a mental health advocate, I have an opinion.

It's been almost two weeks since the Sandy Hook tragedy and the world is still talking about it. It is a tragedy that has made people challenge other people's views, but it has also been an opportunity for people to raise their voices and create change.

People's motivation to create change isn't just limited to America; the Sandy Hook tragedy has got people talking worldwide. Governments have also taken note and assessing whether policies or legislation need to be changed to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in their jurisdictions.

A major talking point has been whether or not the shooter, Adam Lanza, had a mental illness. We may never know for certain if the suspect had a mental illness. Regardless, a lot of people are wondering if mental illness could lead somebody to kill dozens of people.

This subject isn't easy for me to write for the sheer fact that I don't want to offend anybody, but as a mental health advocate, I do have an opinion. Last month, I was appointed co-chairman of the Service User Expert Panel at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. Membership of the panel consists of mental health system consumers, but also family members of those affected by mental illness. We'll be using our individual experiences to try and better the mental health system in Ontario and possibly beyond.

To protect the privacy of panel members I can't say much about our meeting discussions, but even before the Sandy Hook tragedy we spoke in depth about how those with mental illness are treated by law enforcement and in the justice system. Those discussions will continue to happen and I expect the panel to make recommendations as a result of our personal experiences.

Though difficult it is worth asking: Are all those those suffering from a mental illness capable of organizing and carrying out a grotesque massacres such as what happened in Connecticut and Colorado?

Data on homicides committed by those who have a mental illness is scarce, but in a 2011 study called "Trends in rates of mental illness in homicide perpetrators" in the British Journal of Psychiatry, research shows that only 605 (or 10 per cent) of the 5,884 people convicted of homicide in England and Wales had a mental illness at the time of the offense.

As a society we are hungry for answers as to why such heinous acts are committed. It's easiest to pinpoint what we think is the most probable cause, which in fact could be far from the truth.

Don't get me wrong, people with mental illness do end up in the justice system as a result of their actions. But we are victims too, and it's been my experience that those with mental illness who commit such deplorable actions do so because of failure: their own failure to seek treatment, or professionals failing to properly treat their mental illness.

I agree that despite the tragedy that's unfolded, we can use this as an opportunity to make the world a better and a safer place. I do believe everybody wants change, but we need to be careful not to hurt people as a result.

People with mental illness are generally not harmful people. When calling for change, I urge everybody to choose their words carefully especially when it comes to how those with mental illness should be handled and treated. Otherwise, you will further the social stigma.

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