We must respond as one to mental health challenges
Bermuda has moved a step forward in creating a mental health court. Simply incarcerating or trying in criminal courts those who are truly mental patients is a double crime. But don’t stop there, what are we to do to ensure early detection of mental illness? At the moment isn’t it the case that someone with a mental condition has to commit a crime before they can be directed to treatment?
We have heard it said often in our own little circles, that the island’s small gene pool has contributed to the issue of mental illness in many families. Whether that is true or false, what cannot be discounted is that mental illness is often an inherited condition, to which many persons, unaware of their genealogy, are predisposed without ever knowing it. There are many things such as child abuse, sexual abuse, poverty, dysfunctional families and traumatic events buried in the subconscious of one’s early life, which can, when triggered in later life, exacerbate underlying conditions that have not been previously diagnosed.
A high percentage of violent crimes are possibly the result of underlying mental illnesses. I know of one tragic murder of a young girl in Bermuda that was considered as a criminal matter, which in fact was perpetrated by a person with a mental disorder whose cry for help unfortunately went unheeded.
Stigma is still attached to mental illness. Therefore disclosure, detection and treatment in too many cases is avoided. There are also cases when individuals have tried to check themselves into an institution but have been turned away because of not having a police report indicating they have committed a heinous criminal offence.
We can add that to the cost of evaluations as another disincentive, let alone cost of consultation and treatment. Just one mentally ill and dangerous person can have a disproportionate effect on the entire society. Take the recent Miami nightclub murderer as an example. If one person can have that effect, what is the inherent risk of a society riddled with unknown cases.
Mental illness legislation, since its early days, has come a long way and even more so recently. Coming from an era where patients were confined to asylums (imprisoned) and lost all their rights without the rights to appeal their insanity status — that meant also losing control of their property — to now when they can appeal incarceration or treatment and can rely on a capability test to protect themselves from being unduly controlled by others, that is indeed significant progress.
Many jurisdictions are moving in the direction of developing human rights legislation that recognises mental illness as an affliction. That kind of legislative approach allows the person to be protected. Bermuda must decide where it is on the scale of this mental health legislation continuum, the most important being human rights protection, because it sets the tone for the law.
We must also think about where we are, as having a broad-based awareness, which will only happen when we take the time to engage in an exercise of discovery of the true status of the mental health and wellbeing of our society in general.
We can no longer isolate mental illness or treat it as taboo, it is unfair. The European Convention on Mental Health has mandated integration of mental health patients into society. We as a community with all the diverse agencies touching on mental health, must become a congruent collective to respond holistically to all the challenges of mental health. We must keep pace in this evolving world of consciousness to protect the dignity of those with mental health challenges in our respective communities.