Sick in the head? Lock ’em up!

The Yukon, in case you haven't heard, has taken a trail-blazing new approach to treating mental illness. In serious cases, we simply take those suffering and throw them in the clink.

The Yukon, in case you haven’t heard, has taken a trail-blazing new approach to treating mental illness. In serious cases, we simply take those suffering and throw them in the clink.

Such is the case, anyhow, with a 19-year-old who the courts recently deemed to be not criminally responsible for charges he faced because of serious mental illness.

He has been in and out of the hospital to deal with his wild mood swings since he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 15. And, as we reported in last Friday’s paper, during bad spells he suffers delusions, such as that he’s a rock star or a member of the Hells Angels. Recently, police picked him up for cocaine possession, uttering threats and intimidation.

The man’s mother says he received assurances from justice officials that, if he agreed to being found not criminally responsible, he would be treated as a psychiatric patient and given accompanying rights, such as being able to leave on day passes if doctors found him to be in good shape. No such luck, however, when the psychiatric facility you are checking into is Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

It turned out the man was simply put in the general prison population. Whatever psychiatric care the man is receiving seems inadequate. His mother warns he’s slipping into a deep depression.

While the specifics of the care he receives isn’t being disclosed by the secrecy-loving Justice Department, a March 2014 report by health officials found that “psychiatric care at the jail, with a high risk population, is limited to two hours weekly. Justice officials say that one registered nurse is present at the jail for 16 hours a day, to monitor an average of about 100 inmates, while doctors and psychologists are on call.

Let’s call this the Mike Nixon approach to tackling mental illness, in honour of Yukon’s justice minister. It’s so simple, it could fit on a bumper sticker. Sick in the head? Lock ‘em up!

There is the small matter, however, that the Yukon government has promised the courts that it will build suitable accommodations for the mentally ill being held within the jail. As a Court of Appeal judge noted in 2009, in a decision involving Veronica Germaine, another mentally ill patient who was being held at the jail, the Yukon government had submitted legally-sworn oaths that vow that the new jail, under construction at the time, would include special handling units designed for specialized care of psychologically troubled inmates.

Where are those units today? Apparently, they didn’t make the final designs.

While this isn’t exactly the first time the Yukon Party has failed to live up to its word – a certain electoral promise to encourage affordable rental housing in Whitehorse leaps to mind – breaking promises with the judiciary seems to be a risky thing to do, especially when you’re the justice minister.

Perhaps Justice officials will point to the segregation units as being the promised facilities. Indeed, that remains the other solution deployed by jail officials when dealing with mentally disturbed inmates: throw them in the hole.

Unfortunately, the psychological damage caused by prolonged spells in solitary confinement is well-established. That’s why the United Nations’ expert on torture recommends only using it in exceptional cases. Yet, in the Yukon, we apparently offer solitary confinement as therapy. That’s a part of the Nixon approach to mental illness, too.

Clearly, this approach has broader applications. Alcoholics who are picked up by the police are already taken to a glorified drunk located at the jail. While we’re at it, why not toss them in with the general population for a spell?

Who knows who else may benefit? Yukon MP Ryan Leef is pushing for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder to be recognized by the criminal code. Maybe Nixon could help ensure people with FASD remain stuck behind bars.

Or, on the outside chance that Nixon may find the justice system’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners deplorable, maybe he should actually do something about it. An appropriate place to start would be having a credible outside party evaluate the treatment of mentally ill prisoners and propose remedies.

Department officials can’t be trusted to conduct a review themselves, as they’ve shown their primary interest is to cover their own behinds, rather than demonstrate public accountability. Nixon, to date, seems to share these values. But we’d love to be proven wrong.

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