The Ottawa Shooting and Mental Health

The question of the day is how the shooting will change Canada. I fear it won’t change us at all. Some have talked about our country’s lost innocence. A country is never innocent. In its past and present, Canada has both scars and glories.

Of course this was something will add to our collective injuries. It was the killing of an unarmed soldier standing guard over the poetically named Tomb of the Unnamed Soldier, which represents the millions of soldiers around the world who never got a proper burial. This is a heart-aching symbol of this tragedy.

My fear of not changing lies elsewhere, although one has to assume they’ll figure out a way of a least remotely locking the front doors when someone is running towards them with a gun. I have focused on the profile that is emerging of the man who shot the soldier and got into a gunfight in the Parliament buildings. He obviously led a troubled life culminating in the violent death we all are talking about now. What troubles me the most, is that he acted out many times in his life, including robbing a McDonalds in the hope of being arrested. He also tried for a fresh start in Vancouver. This tells me he knew something was wrong, and he wanted help.

He never managed to get any help or prolonged attention from either the criminal justice system, or more importantly, social and health services. This is because they are not designed to deal with mental illness very well. The closest he got was a court report that found no evidence of mental illness, but stated that he was “deeply troubled.” Do we really want courts deciding this? I don’t doubt the sincerity of the judges and even the court psychologists or psychiatrists who would have assessed him in one or two sessions. This is where our system fails us. A diagnosis of “deeply troubled” should have triggered a more in-depth program. This was a man who wanted to stay in jail because he knew he had problems. After his McDonald’s incident, he was jailed for one day and then released.

There are many profiles written about him. They all stress his drug addictions and mentally instability. Most of these pieces are framed as “exclusive looking into the life and mind of a criminal.” I think we should read them as a chance to get inside the life and mind of a Canadian with drug addictions and mental illnesses who was ignored and left to descend into the state of mind that decided a good idea would be to gun down a soldier and then charge our Parliament. This blows me away.

One specific detail was his use of crack-cocaine. Toronto’s mayor used crack-cocaine. I don’t raise this because I want to further highlight my mayor’s behaviour in a salacious way, but because I find it interesting to compare their lives and circumstances. The mayor is lucky to have friends, family, colleagues, and public scrutiny to push him into rehab after many incidents of erratic behaviour, many of which were fuelled by drugs and alcohol. He also had the personal wealth to afford an expensive rehab clinic.

Even for those of us lucky to have this sort of support group to intervene when things start to spiral downwards, it is often not enough. It is exhausting and can be even frightening to deal with people who are depressed, angry, or any of the other manifestations of mental illness and drug addiction. This is where we need professional help in order to better identify and treat people who need help to prevent their descent. I remember listening to the CBC radio programme White Coat, Black Art that did an episode on mental illness and the main point was that our medically trained hospital staff, including nurses and doctors, aren’t even that good dealing with the mentally ill. This must be a sign for change.

But this is hard for politicians to undertake because it is hard to measure short-term success in this area that translates into votes. It is easy to throw someone in jail. It is harder to identify a suffering person and to treat them. This is because of the relentless nature of addiction and mental illness. They are conditions that can’t be cured; you can only adapt and to learn to live with them, and they can overpower you again in times of stress and anxiety.

This man was estranged from his family and had tried moving to Vancouver for a fresh start, and turned to religion but obviously never found an effective support group for his problems. If, as is being speculated, he was influenced in some way by ISIS, then I am troubled that our society was unable to reach out earlier in his life. It is damning if he ISIS as more welcoming and understanding than Canada. He was Canadian, as much as you or me, and the fact that he was missed on many occasions and ended up killing, should surely serve as a call for change.

So, instead of taking some morally high ground such as Rex Murphy proudly saying that he wouldn’t even state his name, or Stephen Harper, mocking Justin Trudeau for even suggesting that we should figure out what the hell is going on inside the heads of people who commit violent acts, we should focus on improving the services designed to intervene and prevent people getting to this point. My desire for change is not only motivated from my bleeding heart liberal perspective of trying finding good in all humanity, but as a matter of prevention and public safety as well. So I call out our political leaders, many of whom experienced this horrible shooting first-hand, to not solely focus on the security aspect of this event, but also focus on improving our country’s ability to help those with a severe need for help.


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