Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(8), pp. 17-18
I am retired from one career. When you retire, many things change. Tracks get lost: the people you knew ‘BR’ (before retirement) lose track of you, just as you do of them. And so, when you meet up again, one of the first questions they ask is: “So, what are you up to?” I find that when I tell them I’m the executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of British Columbia, there is a pause… Then the question: “How did you get into that?”
For 28 years, four months and 22 days I was a policeman with the Vancouver Police Department. I did the things that all ‘coppers’ do. I directed traffic, made vehicle stops and wrote tickets. I walked the beat and patrolled in cars. I drove a wagon and I drove a desk. I investigated, arrested, fought with, counselled, consoled, comforted, asked questions of, ordered, yelled at, spoke to, advised (both for and against), locked horns with, held hands with, laughed and cried with, negotiated with, cajoled, and pushed and pulled many people on my way through a police career. I made friends and enemies on both sides of the line. And that was my life. Well, professionally at any rate.
To my neighbours I was “the cop who lives over there.” My friends were my friends with the knowledge that they had to plan our social events around a shift calendar. Kids on the teams I helped coach were at times more excitedly curious about my day job than about the ball-handling drills that bored them. My ‘clients’—those people with whom I had a single or casual interaction—knew me as a uniform who was there to maintain some order, get a job done or resolve a situation. My co-workers knew and accepted me as one of them—although it was not an easy party to crash, and not an easy room to work once you got through the door.
When I tell my former colleagues in the police force what I do now, and when they get over their initial confusion and we talk for a minute, they come to see the logic. Even as they ask the question—what does being a policeman have to do with mood disorders?—the light begins to dawn. Because, you see, the ‘jurisdictions’ are much the same.
The people I dealt with on the streets of the Downtown Eastside or in Kitsilano or even in Shaughnessy have the same issues as people who have mood disorders. A great many street people have mental illness. There is a qualitative difference in the lives of my new constituents, and mental illness may manifest itself in less obtrusive ways, but the similarities to those living on the streets are there. In both cases they are out of work or underemployed, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and marginalized or ignored by the system. They have problems with relationships or dealing with other people. Some become alcoholics; some become addicted to other drugs, gambling, sex or some other perhaps less devastating vice. The main difference is that when street people become dependent on the relief they seek through self-medication, they perform crime to support this drug use.
Before too many hackles get raised, let me emphasize that to be mentally ill is not to be a criminal. But many criminals are mentally ill. Prisons have a disproportionate number of people with mental illness in their population. Mental illness does not cause crime. It does, however, cause people to be in situations that lead some to criminal choices. That downward path, once taken, is seductive and slippery. Mental illness comprises diseases that have symptoms like exhibiting poor judgement, engaging in risky behaviour or making inappropriate decisions—all key ingredients in the recipe for becoming a criminal. And many of the mentally ill are victims too. People who betray a lack of self-confidence or out-of-the-ordinary behaviour become targets of bullies or opportunists.
Crime is about conflict: conflict with society’s rules; conflict with strangers; conflict with friends, spouses or co-workers; conflict with poverty, repression, discrimination or other human conditions; and even conflict with nature, human and otherwise.
Mental illness, with its attached problems of addiction, self-medication and stigma is also about conflict: conflict with one’s self; conflict with others’ expectations; conflicts with society and with what others call ‘normalcy.’ Conflict with medications prescribed to help sends some people to seek relief through unregulated substance use. Many of those people find it necessary to resort to antisocial (e.g., criminal) behaviour to continue an addictive lifestyle. Mental illness induces others, including mentally healthy loved ones, to strike out physically—most likely, and paradoxically, at someone they care about—as a result of terrible frustration or an inability to cope with the disease, either their own or someone else’s. Some cannot deal with the unremitting pain or the destructive thoughts or impulses and as a result set into motion a chain of events that spurs them to do regrettable things—often before they end their own life or try to.
Is it any wonder that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has identified mental illness as a “huge problem”1 in terms of criminal justice?
Policing is about crime. Simply put, if there were no crime or threat of crime, we would not need police. I have stated in the past—and I caution that this is
my personal estimate—that criminal behaviour would be reduced by more than 80% if we eradicated mental illness. Some people look askance when I say that—but not my police friends. And now, when I give this estimate to my new mental health acquaintances and we discuss it in the light of my police experience, many of them no longer shake their heads in disbelief.
The how or the why of my being executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of BC (MDABC) needs no explanation. It seems a natural progression. I am working in an area that is familiar and makes sense to me, to improve life for people who need help. My MDA constituents struggle with the very things that help create the necessity for my previous career choice. So, it turns out, I struggle with the same enemy I struggled with as a policeman. Yes, I’m in a different arena, using different tools and methods, and my goals are different. But I see the same enemy. Only now, I’m more focused on the ringleader.
About the author
Rennie is Executive Director of the Mood Disorders Association of BC