03/14/2014 09:35 EDT | Updated 05/14/2014 05:59 EDT

The Only Shame in Mental Illness Is the Shameful Lack of Understanding

It's so easy to say I have a cardiac condition, or my blood pressure is through the roof, even talking about one's bowels is acceptable. But acknowledge a mental illness, and the world looks at you differently -- with a little apprehension. Or maybe a lot, especially after reading about mentally ill people who shoot people, drive their cars into the water with their children in the back seat, decapitate a passenger on a bus.

The mentally ill are too often feared and disparaged.

Lock them up, throw away the key. And once someone is on the mend, the illness managed, there are those who still say "would you want to sit on a bus with that guy?" "Would you want him living next door to you?" There's no forgiveness, no opportunity for redemption.

There is an inability to believe that medication, proper supervision and some love can keep mentally ill people stable -- able to not only make it in this world, but contribute.

Fear is still fuelling our response to the mentally ill because the culture is filled with horror stories of "crazy" people. The media jumps on real life situations and sensationalizes them. Most recently, we were exposed to the sad story of Ebony Wilkerson, a pregnant woman, mother of three, who drove her van with her three children into the sea in Florida. The Sherif said, "She told them to close their eyes and go to sleep. She was trying to take them to a better place."

Does this sound like something a mentally well person would say?

And then the Sheriff said "You're supposed to protect your children at all costs," Johnson said at a news conference. "You're not supposed to try to kill your children."

Is he telling us something we don't know? There was no empathy for this woman. He spoke without knowing her history -- or if he did, shame on him.

She had tried to get help. She had entered a hospital for help but left of her own volition. How long was she there? Was she helped right away or told to sit down somewhere? A mentally ill person who goes to hospital needs immediate attention -- like someone coming in with chest pains.

She claimed to be running away from an abusive husband. Was she? Doesn't matter. In her mind she was abused and was running from that abuse. Her sister had called the police, asking for help, because Ebony was "talking about Jesus and that there's demons in my house." The police found her and pulled her over. Everything seemed fine. It wasn't. They had the law on their side. They had the right to apprehend her. If they had listened to the family member she would have been stopped.

Instead we talk about her as if she were just evil. Shall we just put her in jail and throw away the key?

And then the other day, we heard from Adam Lanza's father.

Adam, the very sick young man who took a gun and shot his mother then went to Sandy Hook School and killed 20 children and six teachers before turning the gun on himself. The father said he wished his son had never been born. I could have wept. So many signs of mental instability ignored or misdiagnosed.

Shame on the health care system for letting this family down. Letting the community down. The father's words reminded me of the movieWe Need to Talk about Kevin.

Fear of the mentally is a conditioned response. Vince Li, the man who decapitated Tim McLean, has been allowed unescorted trips from the Selkirk Mental Health Centre. Dr. Steven Kremer said Li, a schizophrenic, has stopped experiencing delusions and is a model, non-violent patient.

I have read on Facebook that people want nothing but revenge against the Vince Li's of the world. Yes, I understand it's scary. That the Manitoba government is spreading fear doesn't help, either.

But that's emotion speaking. Not facts on the ground.

Ian Hunter, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University wrote "Academic studies have shown that the recidivism rate for NCR (not criminally responsible) accused is very low, somewhere in the 3-7 per cent range. By comparison, the recidivism rate for parolees is at least double that, while the recidivism rate for those who complete a prison term is more than five times greater."

If we establish a mental health care system that includes family and friends in the care by sharing the medical information with them, these people, these human beings, have a better chance of recovery. We certainly have lots of care for those who need cardiac rehab. If family is informed, outcomes improve; medications will be taken and appointments kept to the point that the person with the illness knows that mental health, like physical health requires monitoring: forever.

Too many people with mental illness will not seek help for fear of the stigma, the derisive remarks, the lack of empathy. And too often when those with mental illness seek help-too little is available, often too late. The shame of mental illness is the shameful lack of care and caring.


Facts About Mental Health in Canada