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Published on November 25th, 2016 | from CAMH

Movies, Media and Mental Illness: Changing the conversation

IMG_Lori_3By Lori Spadorcia, Vice President, Communications and Partnerships at CAMH |

When John Kastner embarked on the development of the documentary Not Criminally Responsible, nobody could have predicted its profound impact. As the third film in the trilogy is launched, I’m recalling the first introduction I had to the main character, Sean Clifton.

In 1999, Sean Clifton was suffering from schizophrenia when he stabbed a woman in a Cornwall parking lot. Through film, Kastner brings us into Sean’s life, his struggles, his journey, his reflections, and his redemption. But he doesn’t stop there. He also sheds light on the journey of the victim and the victim’s family. We see their anger gradually replaced with understanding and forgiveness, giving us an interesting glimpse into the power of restorative justice.

In my everyday work, the intersection between mental health and criminal justice is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the gaps in the mental health care system.  Many people unfortunately find themselves entering the justice system due to their illness – forever changing the trajectory of their lives. For those deemed “not criminally responsible”, treatment and rehabilitation is the focus instead of punishment. And so it should be – in a civilized country that respects humanity and sees healthcare as a right of its citizens.

It’s complicated though. It can be difficult to separate the crime from the illness and it’s human nature to want to punish people who do “bad” things. Often the media capitalize on this tendency and focus on sensational stories about the crime and the victim instead of human stories about the mental illness. It’s common to hear things like “they are getting off the hook for their crime” or “victims don’t have rights,” and to see headlines that make the patient synonymous with their crime, neglecting to explain the reasons behind the act.

John Kastner has done what nobody in the media has had the time or the inclination to tackle. Kastner portrays the truth – that these illnesses are lifetime struggles in which many patients continuously work at achieving wellness, and by getting better they must forever live with what they have done. He proves that Clifton and others are never “off the hook” and ultimately that it is possible to have empathy for someone who has done something horrible. I remember sitting in the audience during the first film with skeptical friends whose views had been shaped only by newspaper headlines of the past and high profile stories like Vincent Li. After 90 minutes they saw the human on the screen and then saw him in person in the audience. It was a transformational experience.

A job in communications in mental health is both highly rewarding and incredibly frustrating. The opportunity to increase understanding, advocate for better care and supports, celebrate breakthroughs in science and promote innovation in clinical care is juxtaposed each and every day with combating stigmatizing language and behavior, fighting discrimination and injustice, and advocating for human beings to not be defined by their illnesses.

Many days it feels like we are taking one step forward and then one step back. We won’t have made real progress until mental illness and addictions are widely accepted and treated as illnesses and not lapses of morality or judgement. As a communicator, I’m grateful to Kastner for changing the conversation. As a human being, I’m grateful to him for introducing the world to Sean Clifton, and, by telling his story, challenging the most deeply embedded forms of prejudice and discrimination that people with serious mental illness face.

Watch the trailer for NCR: Wedding Secrets here:

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One Response to Movies, Media and Mental Illness: Changing the conversation

  1. annick aubert says:

    I am also grateful to Workman Arts for showing NCR
    back in 2013 at TIFF, and to the CBC for dedicating two nights to his films, which by the way can still be shown in full on the CBC website under documentaries and :First Hand.”

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