08/09/2013 12:26 EDT | Updated 10/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Sammy Yatim: Cause of Death? Stigma

I see tragic parallels between 15-year-old Amanda Todd and 18-year-old Sammy Yatim. Both of them called out for help: Amanda on the internet through social media, and Sammy in person on a streetcar. We as a society failed both of these children. I can say this, unequivocally, because they are both dead: she by her own hand and Sammy by the hands of the police. We are failing in providing care for the mentally ill, especially our children, and I can't believe I am writing this, again.

The July 31st issue of the National Postpointed out that police shootings in Toronto are extremely rare. They "often involve unstable individuals." The editorial goes on to defend the police. They've received "detailed training to help them prepare for confrontations with armed, deranged individuals."

And that's where I see red. "Deranged individuals"? Is the detailed training on "unstable individuals" we're providing our front-line protectors a one-size-fits-all policy based on classifying people like Sammy as being as deranged as someone wielding a machete or an AK47 in a crowded room?

Because if that's what our policy makers are doing then I can fully understand the officer's over the top response to a slight young man wielding a three-inch knife, standing alone in a well-lit, empty streetcar many feet away from gun-wielding officers.

I would like to know what stories were going through the officer's head because those stories are important to his thinking.

Neuroscientists, like Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California, have noted that awareness of our inner states evolved so we could use emotions to evaluate external perceptual information, the things that we learn from the five senses. Two things are simultaneously being laid down in the brain in working memory: what we perceive, and the corresponding feelings. Those feelings and emotions are essential to rational thought. Whether we actually, phenomenally, experience an event or experience it vicariously through the actions of others, or through movies or reading, we still lay down messages in that part of the brain that deals with emotion.

Neuro-imaging studies, though, show that tasks involving moral judgement not only activate rational thought but also may activate brain areas known to process emotion. Because we use thought as well as emotion to evaluate what we experience personally or vicariously, the stories we read, the values taught will affect the brain. And scientists like Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor teach us that we "have the power to consciously choose which emotional or physiological loops" we want to experience.

Was this officer's decision-making clouded by an internalized fear of the mentally ill because of his training? When he sees someone like Sammy acting erratically, does he automatically think of axe murderers and images from Psycho? Is that why he didn't see that this young man, whom eye witnesses had reported had been behaving erratically, still had the presence of mind to remove everyone from the streetcar? And in taking that action he was saying in the only way he could, "Please help me. I don't want to hurt anyone. See I'm all alone." Why did the officer not read that?

My heart goes out the family of Sammy Yatim, but also to that officer. No matter how much therapy he receives, the rest of his life he has to carry with him the knowledge that he killed a young man. A young man who was in all probability in the middle of a mental health crisis. A young man who reached out the only way he could at that time, without harming others.

My guess is that the officer had internalized stories of fear that ultimately affected his decision-making. Had that officer been given more empathetic training regarding the mentally ill, more empathetic stories, perhaps he would have acted differently and never fired his gun. Perhaps he would have taken the time to talk to this obviously unstable, frightened young man.

And we would not once again be burying one of our young and I would not, once again, be writing this story about the lack of mental health care we provide our citizens.