Beyond the Headlines: A Deeper Look at a Tragic Mental Health Case

Recently, the attention of the national media was again captured by a hearing of the Manitoba Mental Health Review Board in the case of Vincent Li.  As you may know, the Court found Mr. Li to be not criminally responsible, by reason of a mental disorder, in the tragic death of Tim McLean aboard a Greyhound bus.  At the time, Mr. Li was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia.

Perhaps due to the intense notoriety of the case, various media outlets have reported on his annual appearances before the Review Board over the years.

By all accounts, Mr. Li's mental health has drastically improved since he was put into the care of his forensic psychiatric system.  Last year, the Review Board considered him ready to live in a group home.  This year, his treatment team recommends that the Review Board consider whether Mr. Li is ready to be allowed to live even more independently.

According to the CBC, Mr. Li's psychotic symptoms have been controlled by medication since 2009.  More importantly, Mr. Li wishes to continue taking his medication, and he remains closely monitored. 

Although the Review Board has not yet issued their decision, it has been reported that Brian Sharpe, Crown counsel, did not oppose the request.  According to the Toronto Star, Mr. Sharpe's submissions to the Review Board included the following: "There have been no issues. He's described in positive terms by the staff. [...] As far as I can tell, he's done everything that's been asked of him."

And yet, the headlines tell a different story, clearly at odds with the facts of this case.  They emphasize the gruesome nature of the index offense.  They focus on the perceived danger, and discount the significant expertise of the Review Board and the forensic psychiatric professionals responsible for assessing risk.

In the headlines, Mr. Li has been defined in the public consciousness not by who he is, but by the tragic and gruesome consequences of his disability.

The headlines betray the continuing role that prejudices play in the continued stigmatization of mental illness and marginalization of people living with mental illnesses.  These prejudices appear, too, in outraged online comments demanding that Mr. Li remain locked up forever. They appear in the comments of MP James Bezan, who characterized the treatment team's support of a conditional discharge as ‘callous' and ‘insulting' to the family of the victim.

It should go without saying that we can be justifiably horrified by the circumstances of Mr. McLean's death, but that if we conceive of Mr. Li as bearing the sole responsibility, without due consideration to the role of his mental illness, we neglect to consider whether the prejudices of our society as a whole perpetuates the risk of future such incidents.

When we believe that people with mental illnesses are ‘monsters', we only encourage our friends and family to hide their symptoms.  Instead of seeking help, with the comfort of knowing we will be there to help support them, they will hide, afraid of being shunned and cast out And if they are then overcome by the symptoms of their disability, we risk more harm, more victims, and more tragedy.

Rather than decrying Mr. Li's bid to re-enter society, he ought to be encouraged for taking charge of his schizophrenia and committing to the treatment that will help keep him and others safe.  And his treatment team ought to be recognized for helping him achieve his recovery.

At the end of the day, the critical question is not whether Mr. Li should ever be released, but why we are not providing all of those living with serious mental disorders with adequate levels of resources and support.

Dante Abbey
CLAS Staff Lawyer

Articles:

Vancouver Sun

CBC

CBC

Globe and Mail

National Post

Toronto Star

Huffington Post