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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 24 February 2012

Mental Illness Tragedy in Toronto

Today, at around 1:30 pm on the Queen's Park TTC subway platform, I was part of a tragedy.

Sadly, it’s a tragedy that plays itself out every single day.  An older gentleman, gaunt, bald and with a full grey beard was being kicked off the train by its operator.  The why is no surprise - the man was swearing, claiming he was a US Marshall, pointing and being belligerent to the operator.  The operator was not happy; the other passengers were decidedly uncomfortable. 

I'm hardly an expert, but the behaviour this man displayed was indicative of a mental illness.  The operator was in reactive mode; the man was a threat which he wanted to remove.  The other passengers were equally reactive, trying to bundle into themselves as much as possible, not wanting anything to do with what was playing out in front of them.

Me?  I ran through the underlying context in my head – which illness the old man was likely inflicted with (schizophrenia was my guess), the limbic reactions of the passengers and operator, the broader public services that apply to mental health and justice, plus the sad regularity of the scene.  Yet still, I did nothing but watch. 

Since then, I've asked myself why I sat by, passively, when I knew what was going on and could probably have done something to help.  The answer troubles me; despite what I know about behaviour, about TTC operations and about available mental health services in Toronto, I felt helpless, unempowered, to make a difference.  If I stepped up, how would I explain the facts to the operator?  What techniques could I use to reach the old man?  How much time would it take and would, ultimately, I be able to connect the man with the help he needed?  I didn't act; the tragedy unfolded unabated, as it does time and time again.

It's not my fault that the man was sick.  It wasn't my fault that the operator was tired and frustrated.  It wasn't my duty to act - but then, whose duty was it?  Nobody was to blame, but we were all guilty of not trying to help.

We live in a society and, like it or not, we live in it together.  What happens to each individual one of us has an aggregated impact on all of us.  That man might end up sleeping in a police office, or in a hospital, costing the public money and reducing the availability of service to the rest of us.  There’s an unlikely chance he might hurt someone else, reacting to his environment much as the operator did.  Most likely, the man might do something to hurt himself. 

When we let tragedies like this happen, we are all lessened in every way – morally, financially, service-wise.  We are all responsible; abdicating our duty to each other is not enough.  When we look beyond what we see, when we reach past our feelings of discomfort, we empower ourselves to be part of the solution.

The road to empowerment lies through education.  The people we generically label as “crazy” aren’t monsters – they are real people with real families.  They’re just suffering from illnesses, illnesses for which treatment and supports exist.  The person who is sick just needs the chance to be connected with those services. 

Here are some websites you can visit to learn more:

I am advocating for a web system that makes it easy for the average person on the street to take a photo or send a text into an online portal, connecting a situation as it happens with the local service providers who can do something about it.  We already have suicide lines in subway stations; Google Maps lets us find restaurants or theatres and rates them.  A digital mental health service system wouldn’t be much different, wouldn’t cost much to build and it would make it easy for everyone to make a difference without getting directly involved.  Such a system would help police, justice services and mental health service providers connect people with mental illness and their families with the assitance they need.  If you think this is a good idea, drop me a line here on the blog or via Twitter @__cce.  You can help.

There is lots of good work being done right now, partially by the organizations listed above but also by businesses like Great West Life and Bell Canada.  There are many, many politicians who are taking mental health and its impacts seriously – find out who your local representatives are and ask them what you can do to help.

The most important thing we can do is learn – learn about mental health and how it effects not just those with mental illness but each of us in how we live our lives, every day.  This is vital, because it does impact us;
We all pay the costs when we do nothing; by doing something, we can all benefit.

When you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.  Be part of the solution.

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