The cost of untreated mental illness

This week’s tragedy in Sydney underlines the folly of pumping money into the prison system and anti-terror measures instead of properly treating the mentally ill.

Man Haron Monis

Man Haron Monis, perpetrator of the siege in Sydney

This week’s tragedy in Sydney, Australia, has taught us once more that the phenomenon of the “lone wolf” terrorist in western societies is more likely to be related to mental illness than ideological jihad.

Despite the adoption of a raft of new laws earlier this year aimed at reducing the threat of terror attacks inspired by the Islamic State, the perpetrator of a siege at a downtown Sydney chocolate café, Man Haron Monis, had actually been dropped from government watch lists despite pending charges of accessory to murder of his former wife and sexual assault against seven women. He was known to hold his radical views and had been convicted of harassing the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, but was inexplicably dropped from the watch list in 2009.

“We particularly need to know how someone with such a long record of violence and such a long record of mental instability was out on bail after his involvement in a particularly horrific crime,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Tuesday.

“The real problem is not a legal issue or something the new laws can fix, but marginalized and radicalized people who may in fact not be breaking counterterrorism laws,” Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the New York Times this week.

And if obvious targets like Monis can escape surveillance laws that mobilize hundreds of police officers in counterterrorism sweeps across the country, what chance do they have against the true lone wolf, people like Canada’s Martin Couture-Rouleau or Michael Zehaf-Bibeau?

As Canadian Public Security Minister Steven Blaney blathers on about adopting tougher laws and mobilizing more public resources to combat lone wolves, critics are quick to point out that current laws already allow police to do the kind of things he is suggesting, such as charging someone for preparing to commit an offence or conspiring with others to do so. Indeed, all of the recent terrorism arrests in Canada have been for planning such acts, not committing them.

And isn’t that the way we’d want it? Isn’t it better to prevent violence than arrest those who commit it?


That’s certainly the way Martin Couture-Rouleau’s father felt in the aftermath of his son’s suicide-by-cop, shot to death after running down two Canadian soldiers in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu on Oct. 20, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

In the previous months, Gilles Rouleau had done everything he could after his son underwent a dramatic personality change, seeking psychiatric help at the local CLSC and even going to police at the suggestion of a CLSC worker. The police told him they couldn’t arrest his son until he had committed a crime, Gilles Rouleau told CBC radio. “I told them … it wasn’t in prison he should go, but to the hospital.”

Unfortunately, it’s easier to get into prison than a hospital for many of Canada’s mentally ill these days. While the Conservative government has shown a willingness to pump greater and greater resources into the prison system — from $1.6-billion to $2.7-billion from 2003 to 2013 — resources for assisting the mentally ill have been shrinking across the country.

The problem is particularly acute for the families of younger Canadians. The government’s own statistics show that 70 per cent of mental health problems begin showing signs in childhood and adolescence and that people aged 15 to 24 — Couture-Rouleau’s age when he began his “radicalization”— are more likely to experience mental illness than any other age group.

Yet public resources for medical assistance are scarce. Gilles Rouleau was fortunate to even get his son seen by CLSC staff, who only take on the most serious of cases. Otherwise, families must turn to private therapists, who can cost $125 an hour or more, so it’s not surprising that only one in four Canadian youths get appropriate treatment for mental health issues.

Would a better-funded mental health system have prevented the tragedy in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu? Certainly not by itself. Couture-Rouleau did not see himself as ill and our laws today provide a large degree of protection to prevent citizens from being treated against their will. Quebec laws require a court intervention to force a 72-hour psychological evaluation, a move that is not taken lightly.

Maybe it’s time to review those rules in the case of people who express a desire to engage in the kind of acts that Couture-Rouleau had publicly mused about. Given the choice between forcing someone who is ill to get treatment and sending them to jail (or the grave) after they commit a crime, the former is clearly the better option for all.


Not all terrorists are mentally ill, of course. And people suffering from mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it. But how much of a threat is potential terrorism to the lives and livelihood of Canadians compared to the damage caused by untreated and under-treated mental illness?

The Mental Health Commission of Canada pegs the cost to the economy at $50-billion a year. That’s billion, with a B. More Canadians die from suicide each year — most of whom were suffering from mental health problems or illness — than died from terror attacks on 9/11.

As a society, we seem to be prepared to take all kinds of extraordinary and expensive measures to protect ourselves against an apprehended threat from outside while we furiously chip away at the support systems that treat a real threat in our very midst.

Maybe it’s time to stop our frantic search for the lone wolf and instead return our attention to caring for the struggling members of our own flock. ■

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Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.