Quebec tragedies put mental health in spotlight, but expert warns of stigma

A series of tragic events in Quebec has brought the suspect’s mental health into the spotlight, but a Canadian research chair says the debate risks unfairly stigmatizing those with mental illness.

A police officer in Quebec was killed on March 27, the latest in a series of seemingly random violent attacks in the province that have raised questions about the suspect’s mental health.

The man who allegedly stabbed Sgt. Maureen Breau, who died in a small town 100 kilometers northeast of Montreal, had a history of mental health problems and was found not criminally responsible for past crimes on at least five occasions.

Other recent incidents in the province include an alleged bus attack at a daycare center in Laval, Que., that left two children dead; three pedestrians killed when they were run over by a pickup truck in the eastern town of Amqui; The teen was charged with stabbing three members of his family.

In the wake of the tragedy, Quebec Premier François Legault and other politicians have highlighted the need for better mental health care services, even raising concerns about involuntary treatment.

Emmanuelle Bernheim, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in Mental Health and Access to Justice, said the rush to link violence and mental health is based on a “false association.” Research doesn’t show that people with mental illness are more likely to use violence than others, she said.

If anything, they are often victims of crime, she said. Yet the stereotype persists — perhaps because people need to make sense of tragedy, Bernheim added.

“I think it shows that we can’t handle this kind of behavior,” she said in a recent interview.

Legault described Breau’s death last week as “another violent tragedy,” adding that “there was clearly a mental health issue.” He pledged to ensure that at-risk patients received prompt treatment.

After a man driving a pickup truck crossed a sidewalk in Amqui, killing three pedestrians and injuring eight, Legault urged Quebecers to intervene when someone around them showed “worrying signs.” The Prime Minister also suggested that those who do not receive treatment may need to be forced to.

Bernheim said she found the prime minister’s comments “problematic” because they would create mistrust of people with mental illness. In addition, she noted that requests for involuntary admission and compulsory treatment for mental health have increased dramatically in recent years.

Citing government figures, she said involuntary hospital admissions had increased by almost 30 per cent between 2015 and 2020, while compulsory treatment had increased by 45 per cent.

“To say that we’re going to treat people against their will, that we’re going to hospitalize them against their will and that this will be fixed, the current approach shows that’s not the case at all,” she said, noting that such tragedies continue to happen.

While mental health has been identified as several contributing factors to the tragedy in Quebec, Bernheim noted that there are major differences between them.

On Feb. 8, a Laval Transit driver was arrested after his bus swerved into the driveway of a Laval daycare and hit the front of the building, killing two young children. Pierre Ny St-Amand, 51, faces two charges of first-degree murder and is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation to assess whether he was legally insane at the time of the alleged attack.

Steeve Gagnon, charged with intentionally driving his truck into pedestrians in Amqui, was arraigned Wednesday on three counts of first-degree murder.

While witnesses described the behavior of the two suspects, Bernheim noted that neither had a history of violent crimes nor was there any indication that they were being treated for mental illness.

The man accused of stabbing Breau was a different story. Isaac Brouillard Lessard, who was shot dead by police after allegedly stabbing the officer, has a history of mental health problems and has been found not guilty of at least five charges. The province’s Mental Health Review Board found Brouillard Lessard posed a “significant risk to public safety” in March 2022, but the board determined that risk could be adequately managed if he was properly monitored.

In that case, there may be other options, Bernheim said.

Since Breau was killed, the union representing the provincial police has said it plans to file a petition with the legislature demanding improved oversight of violent officers released and allowing police access to patient data boards from mental health review boards.

Bernheim said this could lead to situations in which all conditionally discharged people are “flagged” for violence for no reason, or to triage, “which raises the question of how and by whom.”

“The rhetoric of the past few days is helping to make a connection between mental illness and violence, and between people who are not responsible for crimes and violence without any scientific basis,” she said.

She stressed that the factors that lead to crime are complex and unpredictable, but go well beyond mental health – a term she says is vaguely defined and understood.

While Bernheim said she didn’t have the answers, she suggested that people focus on the social factors of crime, including rising inequality, lack of social services and isolation.

“We know a lot of people are really lonely; they have no one,” she said. “If they need help or support, if they don’t have someone, how do they get help or support in a situation where it’s really difficult to get services?”

Morgan Lowrie, Canadian Press

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Mental Health Quebec

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