In 1975 at Ottawa I took a course on forensic psychiatry, the interface between the legal system and mental illness.
At one session a law student denounced psychiatrists’ readiness to lock people away in bleak mental hospitals. A psychiatrist auditing the course, an army colonel, objected that this picture was outdated. He conceded mental institutions were human warehouses up to the 1950s. But then, he insisted, the introduction of drugs capable of stabilizing moods and restoring rationality had allowed psychiatrists to “clean out the snake pits,” as he termed them. Medication restored vast numbers of previously incurable mental patients to sufficient normality that they were able to function in the community.
To anyone involved in the court system in the late 1970s as I was, a less benign aspect became apparent in the situation. Some mentally afflicted people provided a revolving door spectacle at court, repeatedly getting into trouble as their conduct deteriorated when they would not voluntarily continue taking necessary medication.
In the 1980s the problem came under open discussion. Mental health is not an on/off switch. Many people were restored to adequate normalcy and institutional custody was no longer necessary, but nonetheless required strong support within the community. This requires dedicated residential facilities and counselling services. That was not to be. Initial attempts at providing the necessary support, never sufficient, were routinely pared back as government budget controllers found an easy target when slashing costs.
Over time the courts encountered more and more accused persons whose deeds flowed from mental illness. Most judges attempted to deal with this compassionately, but their options were limited by the shrinking options within the mental health system. As time went on the proportion of mentally ill prison inmates grew. Correctional institutions became more dangerous places to be.
So did the streets. We are now at the point where it is not uncommon to be accosted in public by a person displaying evident mental issues. There is frequently unpredictable, occasionally horrific, violence resulting in severe injury or death, including sometimes of the mentally ill person. The sad reality is such things will always happen, but a sadder reality is that in Alberta and elsewhere, government financial policies have steadily increased the incidence.
It was in this tradition that the Alberta health system, then headed by ham handed minister Ron Liepert, and the supposedly arm’s length health executive Stephen Duckett, began targeting beds at Alberta Hospital and generosities like giving mental patients free mouthwash.
Alberta is a conservative society but you do not live here long without recognizing that a great many people of conservative outlook are also compassionate. Public opposition to the changes, particularly over the toiletries cheapness, swelled to the point where the brakes were applied. The hapless Liepert was dispatched to manage Alberta’s energy affairs. Hopefully Duckett can find a job back in Australia managing dingoes.
St. Albert resident David Haas has lived in Alberta for 52 years.