When mental illness kills

By Lindsay Healey

In 2020, a Nova Scotian man, Richard Maidment, was awarded his wife’s life insurance money after she was murdered. Outrage ensued nation-wide, because Richard was the one who killed his wife. However, Richard was found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder, NCR for short, for this offence. I saw Facebook friends, whom are openly supportive of controversial social causes, share the article in open disgust. It was a stark reminder that not only is there a serious lack of knowledge about the NCR defence and population, but there is an entrenched stigma, that sensationalized cases such as this one, resurfaces.

To be found NCR in Canada one requires a serious mental illness, and to either not understand the nature or quality of the act they committed, or understand that what they did was wrong. Almost three quarters of NCR individuals have a psychotic disorder, which can alter both the thought process and sensory perceptions of the individual. Contrary to what the average Canadian may think, in part due to selective coverage of sensational cases, serious acts of violence are highly uncommon. In a novel, national examination of our NCR population (National Trajectory Project), Crocker and colleagues found that only 9% of the offences NCR patients commit are of a serious violent nature. In fact, individuals with serious mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general population, but they are 11 times more likely to be the victim of violence according to a study by Teplin and colleagues.

When an individual found NCR has shown marked recovery from their mental illness, and has demonstrated to no longer pose a significant threat to the public, they are reintegrated slowly into the community. If this news goes public – most commonly due to the sensational nature of their offences – it is often met by irate cries of scared and angered Canadians. I typically do not hear this same passion when a violent individual is released on parole from the traditional correctional system, and these are individuals who by definition intentionally committed their crimes. These irrational fears of individuals found NCR contradict the evidence we have. Once released from the forensic system, 17% of NCR individuals reoffend, compared to 34% of offenders from the general correctional population. Further, only 0.6% of reoffences are considered seriously violent. The public wants these individuals to remain locked up and suffer indefinitely, but what they don’t know is, despite being released, they often do suffer significantly for the rest of their lives.

I cannot think of a more stigmatized population – facing double stigma, stemming from having a serious mental illness and from being deemed a ‘criminal’. Individuals found NCR often live unfulfilled lives, commonly void of healthy social support, freedoms and under distaste of the community they try to reintegrate into. Livingston and colleagues called it a ‘forensic label’, and this stigma has been linked to barriers in obtaining housing, employment, deterioration of mental health and even ironically, reoffending.

By definition, the offences that NCR individuals commit are unintentional, and are a direct consequence of symptoms caused by debilitating mental illness. As a result, the greatest proportion of victims (34%) are family members, who are often in the closest proximity to the ill individual. Could you imagine anything worse than living with the guilt of unintentionally hurting or killing someone you love? And if that torture isn’t enough, you are feared by the community, and face the risk of being shunned by your personal support system as well. Individuals found NCR do not ask for a mental illness, nor did they ask to commit a crime, they were just dealt a really bad hand in life.

We don’t ostracize individuals with physical illness, or blame them for their symptoms, so why do we do it for individuals with mental illness? If the article from Nova Scotia read, “Grieving husband gets life insurance money when wife, attacked by stranger, dies”, would we have the same outrage? Of course not, but neither would that article have been published. We need to understand that it was a stranger that murdered Richard Maidment’s wife. Richard, by definition, was not himself during those moments, and the real culprit was not him, it was his mental illness.