I spent nearly two years going to the criminal courts in Old City Hall in Toronto doing research for a television show. It was, in almost every way imaginable, an overwhelming experience. I still can’t explain very accurately what it was like. Chaotic, eye-opening, humbling, infuriating.
My first time in court there was this: An endless procession of messed-up spiritless women in the ugly brown sweatsuits issued to them after they were rounded up in a street prostitute sweep. Women moving almost trance-like in and out of the dock. Most of them crack addicts. All of them just taking their punishment. Thirty, sixty, ninety days in jail. No intervention. No effort to handle them any other way. Just the jail time. And that’s that for them. Then there was Drug Court. Nearly all of the accused were black. And young. Too much to say and wonder about that in this blog. Too many things I still can’t come to grips with. None of it healthy or easy. When I think about that court I feel just very tired and helpless.
But then… Oh yeah the real kicker… Mental Health Court. It was started by a couple of very decent judges and a few amazing social workers. People just sick of having to throw so many people with mental health issues into jail because there was no other place for them or because the other courts couldn’t appreciate what was at the core of their behaviour. Which was sickness. Nothing else. They were all to varying degrees ill. Imagine if cancer or heart disease made you act out. Made you expose yourself in public, or carry around a large pair of pruning scissors because you believed you were a freelance gardener, or relieve yourself on a coffee shop floor when you weren’t allowed to use their washroom. Or kill someone because you thought they were sent by the devil to end the world. Not enough help for them out here in the world, so we warehouse them in a prison where it just gets worse. Much worse.
Mental Health Court tried to do better. Find beds. Find shelters. Involve their families. Keep the medical profession from giving up on them. And so they went there. And I (and all the other researchers on this show) watched and listened.
The mind of a schizophrenic in full flight can be a wondrous thing to behold. Impossible to keep up with. Elastic and often deadly accurate in its observations. Terrifying and also surprisingly and hysterically funny. It’s also an impossible thing to deal with without the help of medication. And a mortal wound to the heart and soul of people who care about them. The families of people with serious mental illnesses are some of most tortured people on the planet. And a visit to a mental health court changed things for me — someone who was supposed to just sit and watch but who, more often than not, was transported into the minds and dilemmas of these people. These very very ill people. And also the people beside me in the public gallery who loved them and were unable to help them. Not really. Not for long. Not enough.
More on mental health later probably.