Mental illness and the law: a revealing look at the NCR process
This past weekend I found myself in a sold-out theatre taking in John Kastner’s film NCR: Not Criminally Responsible at the Hot Docs Film fest. The documentary tells the story of a man, Sean Clifton, who is found NCR after stabbing a woman in a mall parking lot. The timing of its release is perfect. We couldn’t be at a more critical time in history given the federal government’s proposed changes to the NCR defense.
The film was an unprecedented look into the lives of the patient, the victim and the staff of the Brockville Mental Health Centre where Sean Clifton was treated. In my view, the development of the film came with great risk. During a time of sensationalized stories and emotional debate, revealing such intimate details and personal stories can serve to further drive a wedge between opposite sides of the issue.
As we strive to eliminate the criminalization of mental illness, are we courting more controversy by showing the dimensions of these complex illnesses and revealing the vulnerabilities of the patients, victims and the mental health care system?
I don’t think so.
I was personally overwhelmed with the extraordinary courage shown by the patient, the victim and her family, and the health care professionals. The human face that Kastner portrays is compelling, and as someone who advocates on behalf of the mentally ill, it is exactly what is missing in our day-to-day efforts to break down prejudice and discrimination and advocate for better treatment and supports in the mental health care system.
As any good documentary does, it left me with lots of questions to ponder. During one of my favourite moments, a local resident strikes up a “normal” conversation with Clifton in a coffee shop where he reveals to her that he struggles with mental illness and there is a film being made about him. She asks him for his autograph and wishes him well. It made me wonder if the small size of the community of Brockville and the visibility of the mental health centre helps to close the gap in the understanding of these illnesses. Is the visibility and proximity to serious mental illness the antidote to discrimination and stigma? If that is true, how can we close the gap in understanding within large and diverse communities right across the country?
There was one important issue that Kastner glosses over – the fact that Clifton tried to get help right before committing the offense and was turned away from the health care system. While it’s difficult to know what happened in this situation without the details, it certainly hints at the great challenges we have to overcome in providing timely care and supports right across the health care system.
For a sector that needs more personal stories, this film lends a powerful narrative at a critical point in time. In the discussion after the film, Kastner encouraged people to write to their political representatives about the NCR legislation. With Clifton himself sitting in the audience, isn’t that a great way to honour his road to recovery and his courage to tell his story?