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Families of mentally ill pay terrible toll: Psychiatric patients are killing and assaulting their families at an alarming rate
Schizophrenia Update, December 2002
By: Veronique Mandal
The sturdy oak bar snaps snugly across the door leading to Robbi-Lynn Jessop's bedroom. Her parents, Bob and Pamela, place it there each night to prevent their daughter from killing them.
Once a gifted student at Riverside secondary school in Windsor, Ont., Robbi, 18, has for two years spiralled into the deepest abyss of schizophrenia. In 2000, she tried to set the family home on fire. Last year, she admitted to visions of stabbing her parents and two sisters, arranging their bodies liked toppled dominoes in a pool of their own blood.
Unable to find a residential treatment centre for their daughter, the Jessops took the extraordinary step of barricading Robbi's bedroom each night and taking turns standing watch. Where once they lovingly tucked her in, now they fearfully lock her in. "Right now there are nights when I am so mentally tired I want to say, 'Here Robbi, here's a knife, just to put an end to it,' " says Pamela Jessop. "If only we could get proper help for her, things might be different. But the system sucks and if you're mentally ill, God help you."
And God help your parents, siblings, husbands and wives.
Forced to provide their children with the love and sanctuary no longer available in institutions, the families of Canada's mentally ill are paying with their lives.
Assembling court transcripts, coroner's inquest reports and other archival records, a Windsor Star investigation has documented more than 130 murders and murder-suicides across Canada since 1997 in which mental illness played a prominent role. They occurred in a five-year period while Ontario, B.C. and other provinces were stepping up campaigns to close mental institutions and treat patients in the community.
Psychiatric patients are assaulting and murdering their loved ones at an alarming rate, with family members the victims in three out of four killings committed by the mentally ill, the Star has found.
The six-month Star investigation into mental illness in Canada, particularly schizophrenia, the most chronic and debilitating of the diseases, uncovered:
- Critical gaps in institutional care, particularly 24-hour emergency psychiatric care, undermined by a lack of psychiatrists and delays in psychiatrists responding to calls.
- Deficiencies in provincial laws aimed at forcing the dangerously mentally ill to take medication.
- A staggering increase of mental illness in the criminal justice system, with a commensurate rise in the use of the insanity defence, particularly in Quebec.
- Restricted access for many schizophrenics to the most effective, and costly, anti-psychotic drugs.
- Inadequate training for most law enforcement officers confronting the mentally ill, who die at the hands of police at the rate of about two per year.
Four years ago, Ruth Millar, 49, of Victoria, couldn't find suitable treatment for her schizophrenic son Aaron, 24, so she took him into her home. One night, as Ruth was doing the supper dishes, Aaron, tormented by voices which told him Ruth was going to harm the family, plucked a ceremonial sword off the wall and drove it through her heart.
A coroner's jury, created for the inquest into Millar's death, called for immediate funding for a day hospital in Victoria for psychiatric patients and that money should be provided to staff an assertive outpatient and outreach program.
Although charged with second-degree murder, Aaron was found not criminally responsible by a B.C. Supreme Court justice and he spent more than two years in the Forensic Psychiatric Centre in Coquitlam.
In a 1993 case predating The Star's investigation, a 79-year-old Vancouver woman was murdered by the son of her nephew after she took him because he had nowhere else to go.
Mark Andrew Bottomley, then 24, was charged with second-degree murder after Kathleen O'Sullivan's partially clad body was found in the lane behind her basement suite early Christmas Day. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in September, 1994.
Mental illness was unequivocally established as the cause in 108 of the killings since 1997 examined by The Star. These included murders in which a court found the accused not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder -- the former insanity defence -- and murder-suicides in which mental illness was found to be a determining factor. In these cases, 80 of the 108 victims were related to their killers by blood or marriage.
A further 23 victims were friends, neighbours, employees, roommates or fellow residents of an apartment or rooming house, meaning that in 103 of the 108 killings, the assailant and victim knew each other. A scant five cases were random.
The most recent case occurred about two weeks ago in Lorraine, Que. Andre Letellier, 30, whom neighbours said had a history of schizophrenia and roamed the neighbourhood singing and talking to himself, killed his parents and hanged himself.
Many of the victims had opened their homes and hearts so their troubled loved ones could get well. Twenty-seven of the victims were parents or grandparents, ranging from middle-class Montreal suburbanites to the town historian in Smoky Lake, Alta. Their killers often led deceptively routine lives -- honour-roll students, gifted athletes, kids who paddled canoes and peddled newspapers.
"He was cheerful, witty, unassuming," mourner Perry Anglin said of Geoff Fertuck, a 35-year-old schizophrenic who stabbed to death his parents, Ed and Margaret, before throwing himself in front of a freight train in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield. "He was so tender and gentle and full of self-doubt that he didn't realize what a terrific person he was."
A report recently issued by the Quebec coroner's office said Fertuck was found to be schizophrenic in August 2000 while he was being treated for depression. In January 2001, a psychiatrist told Fertuck's parents it would be dangerous to keep him at home. But they decided to keep looking after him while his condition was monitored by a psychiatrist and a social worker.
On May 16 of that year, the three were found dead.
A 911 call on the night of June 13, 1997 captured the horror of 11-year-old Kenny Meehan as he witnessed his father Joseph, 43, nearly dismember his younger brother Michael, 8, in their Toronto home. Suffering what psychiatrists called either bipolar disorder or a form of schizophrenia, Joseph Meehan fell under the delusion that his son was the devil.
"My dad's killing my brother," Kenny told the 911 operator. "He's got blood all over him ... I'm gonna die. He looks so sick. He was strangling him. Oh, my God ... I think he's not alive."
Two years ago, a Toronto court ruled that mental illness rendered truck driver David Patten, 45, not criminally responsible for the bludgeoning death of his parents Manus, 81, a retired garbageman, and Clare, 73, a retired nurse, with whom Patten lived. He beat them in their driveway with a red-handled spade.
Patten thought he was the "leader of the British Army" heading into the Third World War and could avert the conflict by killing the devil possessing his parents, according to court records.
"He thought he was killing the devil inside his father and that his father was still alive and the devil was then transferred to his mother, so he killed her," testified Dr. Graham Glancy, a psychiatrist who estimated Patten suffered from mental illness for more than 20 years, perhaps since Grade 8.
Schizophrenics often perceive their caregivers as enemies because they enforce difficult rules. Under a new Ontario law, designated decision-makers -- typically parents -- can obtain the legal authority to hospitalize their children or force them to take medication that often carries unpleasant side effects such as weight gain.
Many of the killers in The Star's investigation were defying court orders to take their meds, often in the belief that because their symptoms had subsided, they were cured. Typically, the assailant experienced a quick snap into psychoses, striking out as if in a trance. Many heard non-existent voices which cast their victims as NASA spies, satanic agents or seven-foot monsters.
"It's a very common story to hear that the victims have been parents or someone close to the mentally ill person" said Dr. James Young, Ontario's chief coroner. "Family members are seen as the enemy, the people who call the police, take them to hospital or seek a court-ordered admission."
The cases involved some of the most brutal attacks this country has seen -- bizarre acts of dismemberment, decapitation and cannibalism. In a 1997 murder in Toronto, Gregory Workman, 44, said he stabbed his mother Noel, 77, five times in the neck, chest and back because he believed he was a surgeon carrying out a medical procedure.
"I lost my mind, and two people lost their lives," Brian Eugene Wessel, 30, told a Regina courtroom in January 2001 after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of his wife and brother-in-law in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask. Four days after his supply of anti-psychotic medication ran out, Wessel cleaved the pair in their sleep.
It's the nature of psychosis that the mere act of killing isn't enough; a ritualistic climax is also required to quiet the voices, said Dr. John Bradford, a leading Canadian expert on criminal insanity.
"The mind is so disordered the person acts in a frenzied rage, often with amazing strength," said Bradford, head of forensic psychiatry at Royal Ottawa Hospital. "If the mind is convinced the victim is a demon you can imagine how desperate the person is to get rid of such a threat. It's very sad but not unusual."
Family peril was the key finding of a Star investigation into mental illness in Canada -- particularly schizophrenia and its close cousin, bipolar disorder -- prompted by the April 9 killing of Windsor heart specialist Dr. Percy Demers. Earlier that day, Demers was unable to get his mentally ill son Thomas, who had stopped taking his medication, admitted to hospital.
Thomas Demers is charged with murdering his dad.
The mental health establishment has long asserted that psychiatric patients pose no greater threat than the general population. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that those not taking their medications -- and the estimated 10 to 15 per cent who do not respond to treatment -- are prone to violence.
A recent study by the American Psychiatric Association, cited by Bradford, showed the risk of violence is six to seven times higher among people with major depression or schizophrenia. The risk rises to six to 12 times higher in schizophrenics who drink alcohol and 35 to 40 times higher for those on cocaine.
"Unfortunately there is a correlation between severe mental illness and violence," said Bradford. "Up until the early '90s psychiatrists played down the fact there was a relationship because we were worried about the stigma to patients."
Clearly, families and friends are shouldering more of the burden of caring for the mentally ill. Over the past 30 years the number of mental-health beds in Canadian hospitals has dropped by more than two-thirds, to 15,011 from 47,633.
Meanwhile, the mentally ill represent the fastest growing segment of Canada's prison population, with estimates that by 2020, more than 60 per cent of people with schizophrenia will have a criminal record.