It is a sad fact that none of the abuses (past or present) by professionals in the 'mental health' field could take place if the public was truly informed on the issues involved. The corporate media has played a principal role in disseminating the kind of unbalanced and often blatantly false information used in manufacturing the public consent required for such mistreatment.

We have been taught that the relationship between doctor and patient is supposed to be privileged. Yet whenever someone with a psychiatric diagnosis is arrested for a criminal offense (especially if it involves violence), or whenever a homeless person dies for want of affordable housing, and even in instances (twice in the last two months of 1999) where psychiatric survivors themselves are the victims of serious unprovoked attacks, their psychiatric history is revealed in full sensationalized detail, right down to specifics of diagnosis, hospitalization history and 'treatments' prescribed (generally with a particular emphasis on those who refuse or cease these 'treatments' for whatever reason).  

The bogeyman of 'public safety' is the most common explanation used  to justify this clear breach of medical protocol. Yet this in itself does not explain why survivors who are victims of violence provoke a similar media/public outcry for draconian controls; why the medical model of 'mental illness' holds sway as the sole accepted explanation for peoples' difficulties in living or why the many positive contributions of people with alleged 'mental health' issues are largely ignored.

If the truth be known, the public prejudice against evidence of madness probably runs deeper than most others, crossing all boundaries of race, gender, religion, sexual preference and class. A case in point: When a number of years ago a proposal was brought forth in this City to profile crime statistics based on the race of perpetrators, a huge public outcry was quite rightly provoked. Yet persons labeled 'mentally ill' face such public exposure and profiling daily at the hands of media and politicians alike - and this is widely accepted by the public. 

Telling people what they want/expect to hear (no matter how far from the truth) is what sells papers - and wins votes for politicians. Powerful lobbying interests such as the Schizophrenia Society and the drug companies who make their profits off the enforced misery of survivors likewise exploit this media-fueled bias.

It also comes as no surprise that politicians and others who create or affect public policy are able to utilize the media in this fashion in order to evade personal responsibility for pressing social issues such as poverty or homelessness.  When the consequences of these issues can be attributed to any kind of 'personal defect' model (such as supposed psychiatric disorder) the real disparities in society become eclipsed, with the victims shouldering the burden of blame for their own circumstances.  This is especially insidious where psychiatric diagnoses are used to this end due to their false presentation as being a compassionate point of view.

The direct impact the media has on public policy debate is too obvious to ignore. Commencing in the winter of 1998, the Province of Ontario has undertaken a major review of the Mental Health Act. In doing so the Ministry of Health actually cited  a dreadful series entitled 'Madness' that ran in the Toronto Star in January that year as being the major catalyst for this review. Authored by Theresa Boyle and Donovan Vincent, this week-long series of articles focused exclusively on a handful of violent incidents involving persons with a diagnosis, totally ignoring the reality of the vast majority of survivors who have no inclination to violent behavior - or conversely, the allegedly 'sane' individuals who account for the lion's share of serious crime. 

The review (at that time) was being facilitated by Tory MPP Dan Newman (then parliamentary assistant to Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer). Survivors were able to obtain a place at the table only through their own initiative - a meeting with Newman at the Raging Spoon Café (A survivor-run business) drew more than a hundred people, with better than two dozen testifying in one voice as to the unacceptability of greater coercive powers being added to the Act. The call for affordable housing, adequate income or decent employment and non-medical, survivor-controlled community resources was unanimous.

It was only through horrible coincidence that at about this same time the spouse of a well-known right-wing journalist (David Frum, then with the Financial Post) became the 'victim' of a pushing incident in a TTC subway station involving a woman with a 'history of mental illness'. (She was not injured). In several subsequent columns Frum vilified the survivor community, stating flat out that a psychiatric diagnosis should carry an automatic requirement for  legally-mandated treatment compliance or incarceration. (whether or not violence is actually involved).  No doubt this had its own impact on the review, for when Newman's report was released later that year, it made no mention whatever of the powerful survivor testimony he had so recently heard. Obviously, the public fear and bias towards  'madness' had once again been successfully exploited.

In an incredibly bizarre twist of logic, incidents where survivors become the victims of serious attacks have been similarly distorted into a call for greater coercive powers. Two incidents in late 1999 highlighted this fact in graphic detail. 

In November 1999, a man named Joey Pace was viciously kicked and beaten to death under a bridge in Oshawa, Ontario. Joey (who was homeless) had apparently been enjoying a cup of coffee in a donut shop when the woman behind the counter 'took exception' to his demeanor and appearance and summoned a couple of friends for support. These two men followed Joey when he left the establishment, subsequently attacking him under a bridge about a kilometer away. 

About two weeks later, an article appeared in the Toronto Sun referring to the fact that Joey had been diagnosed 'paranoid schizophrenic' and which contained comments from members of his family lamenting the fact that Joey had refused to take medication. (Joey had no criminal record or history of violent behavior). Clearly this hate crime had been distorted into a call for draconian restrictions on the life of the victim.

On December 22, 1999 a man named Michael Wilson was attacked by as many as five young men when walking near his home, sprayed with a flammable liquid and set on fire. It was only by incredible good fortune that Toronto's district fire chief happened to be passing by, and used his coat to smother the flames. (Michael remains in Sunnybrook Medical Center as I write this).

The initial media reaction upon learning that Michael had been diagnosed 'schizophrenic' was to suggest strongly that he had self-immolated. (a theory later refuted when eyewitnesses described the several younger men surrounding him). In a much more insidious portrayal, the Globe and Mail subsequently ran a series of five editorials during the week ending on New Year's Day 2000. These articles (four of which were written by Sean Fine) cited alleged past incidents of 'bizarre behavior' by Michael, attributing such to his 'going off his medication.' The implication behind this appeared to be that Michael had himself precipitated this horrible attack through his non-compliance with treatment!

The Globe and Mail received a spate of angry letters from survivors in response to this series (from as far away as Phoenix, Arizona and Sydney, Australia) but in a final insult to injury published only one - from the president of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. 

It is the powerful in this society (whether it be doctors, politicians or corporate interests) who can generally count on having their point of view put forward in the mainstream press, despite its protestations that it is in fact impartial. These powerful interests are the ones served by the three primary myths one hears being promoted - namely,  that (1) there is a direct and inevitable correlation between 'mental illness' and violence; (2) so-called 'mental illnesses' are a medically verified fact that spell out an incapacitating life sentence for the 'afflicted',  and (3) that powerful mood-altering chemicals are the only beneficial 'treatment' for these disorders, and that the patient's 'lack of insight' sometimes necessitates these 'treatments' being administered over the individual's clear objections. 

Graeme Bacque
March 7, 2000