Mayor and Police Chief further stigmatize people with mental health issues

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Mayor and Police Chief at Vancouver Police Board (Sept 17th, 2013)

Last week Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson held a joint press conference with the Vancouver Police Department announcing a “mental health crisis” in Vancouver. The press release, and a series of associated reports, could have addressed the barriers and stigma facing people with mental health issues in our communities. Instead, they entrench the worst forms of stigmatization and detrimental stereotypes.

In his press release, the Mayor paints a terrifying picture of violent attacks in the midst of a “public health crisis” on the verge of “spiraling out of control.” Since January 2012, the Mayor writes, “the VPD has identified 96 serious incidents ranging from suicides to random, violent attacks inflicted upon innocent members of the public.” Without specifying the actual number of suicides versus attacks, the Mayor adds, “It is a miracle that many of the people involved in these random attacks have not died.” The City report, which does not attempt to convey a complex understanding of mental and public health issues, resorts to graphic images and anecdotes, repeating the notion that people with severe mental illness are a “threat” to the public.

The VPD’s background document echoes Robertson’s position that people with mental health issues currently pose “the greatest risk of an unprovoked attack on everyday citizens in Vancouver.” The document is a sensational account of a dozen detailed and gory accounts of specific attacks to make gross generalizations of what mental health illness can lead to. Among other things, this kind of highly problematic stereotyping collapses the difference between the person and their illness, with no separation between the two. Vancouver Coastal Health identifies this tendency as a major problem and, as a thought exercise, questions if we usually “consider someone with cancer to be cancerous?” adding, “Why should we treat mental illness any differently?”

Every year, one in five Canadians will deal with some kind of mental illness in their lives, which includes persistent anxiety, eating disorders and depression, in addition to other types of suffering that impair the lives of the people they affect. Instead of taking the opportunity to highlight how common it is for people to experience mental illness, the Mayor isolates a handful of violent incidents, ignoring the systemic difficulties people with mental health issues face in accessing services and housing.

A lot of research and activism has brought attention to the systematic barriers in accessing mental health services, as well as basic barriers to openly talking about The barriers are even greater for immigrants, and a recent study found that “immigrants are over 50 per cent less likely to get treated for depression compared to those born in Canada.” Other studies confirm similar trends, underscoring the urgency of tackling these very real problems on a social rather than exclusively personal or psychological level.

In response to the Mayor and police, a Vancouver Sun article by Michael Schratter questions the Mayor’s portrayal of people with mental health issues. “People afflicted with a mental illness are no more likely to be a danger to others than a person deemed mentally healthy,” he writes, adding that the real issue is the need for people to be supported rather than stigmatized, since “they are far more likely to hurt, or even kill, themselves, than are people who do not suffer from a mental illness.”

Yet, there is no single mention in the Mayor’s press release or in the background report of the stigmatization, discrimination, evictions, sexual violence, other forms of violence, that many people with mental health issues and concurrent disorders are subject to on a regular basis in Vancouver. Importantly — given the Mayor’s decision co-release the report with the police rather than public health officials — this list includes police brutality and shootings.

Vancouver Police Chief Constable Jim Chu alludes to the situation only in a passing sentence. “Those apprehended under the Mental Health Act,” he admits, “are 15 times more likely to be the victim of crime and 23 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than people without the illness.” But despite the significance of this statistic, the Mayor chose to exclude it entirely from his public statements, along with any other references to the complex social, historical and political determinants of health. The police, in turn, are framed as the primary victims.

The message from Mayor Robertson and the VDP is that when it comes to people with mental illness, you can never be too vigilant — you never know when they will strike at random. This kind of shameful police rhetoric is regressive and belongs to the past. Such stereotyping has very real effects on people’s lives. The Canadian Mental Health Association rightly notes that “the stigma experienced by people with a mental illness can be more destructive than the illness itself.” Mayor Robertson and VPD should immediately withdraw and apologize for their statements. Only then could the city begin to be a part of a process of helping each other to stop the self-reinforcing cycles of poverty, criminalization and unjustified institutionalization.