Spotlight on schizophrenia

While the disease is implicated in Raymond Taavel’s death, most schizophrenics go on to live happy, productive lives.

A Pride Parade tribute to Taavel.
A Pride Parade tribute to Taavel.

Last April, Andre Denny received a one-hour unescorted pass from the East Coast Forensic Hospital. The next day, he was charged with the second-degree murder of gay activist Raymond Taavel.

Denny has paranoid schizophrenia. He was committed to the forensic hospital after being found not criminally responsible on a charge of assault causing bodily harm in Cape Breton. He has been described in court as "grossly psychotic with a history of aggressive impulsivity and unpredictability."

There is much we still don't know in this case. In late November a psychiatric assessment of Denny was completed, but the results will remain private at least until trial. The public is left speculating about the role of mental illness in this tragedy, complicated by reports that witnesses told police Taavel's attacker used a homophobic slur.

Some of those familiar with Denny, and with the mental health care system, say he shouldn't have been given a pass. His former lawyer says he is violent only after mixing alcohol and anti-psychotic medication.

A review of the incident and related practices and policies says the hospital followed proper procedures, which themselves need revision. The report recommends ensuring every patient undergo a hearing by the Criminal Code Review Board before being issued a pass. That did not happen in Denny's case.

So, can Taavel's death be blamed on schizophrenia? Stephen Ayer, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, says that violent crimes are actually extremely rare among people living with schizophrenia. He estimates that there are more than 3,000 people with schizophrenia in HRM, "And I can't recall in 20 years in Halifax another example of someone found not criminally responsible going out and committing murder.

"But when they do it is very visible and people just see the violent individuals, and it gets blown out of proportion," he says. As a result, people living with schizophrenia are stigmatized as dangers to society, and are afraid to admit their illness. "It's very hard even on their families to be associated with that stigma." So treatment is not sought, and it's a downward spiral.

In the tragedy of Taavel's death, Ayer says "there was a dropping of the ball in giving Denny the pass," and that the system for passes needs fixing. He says the Schizophrenia Society is in full support of the report's 18 recommendations.

But he says the root cause of many of the mental health care system's problems is the lack of funding, which creates an impossible situation for clinicians. "Mental health services are at the bottom of the totem pole," he says. "There are long wait lists, the system is overloaded and clinicians are taxed to the max."

Yet they were left to make a judgment call each time Denny went out.

Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia
Executive director Stephen Ayer says 70 percent of people with schizophrenia have partial to full recoveries and often live excellent lives. To get there, they need family and friends. “We do a 10-week family support program to help them navigate the mental health system, teach them how to advocate for themselves and about medicines and other treatments.” The organization fights stigma, in part by employing people with schizophrenia. Laura Burke became aware of the society in 2004 when she became ill and has worked with Ayer since 2009. “The services are much needed because loved ones are too often left out of decisions,” she says.

How to give: You can donate money, volunteer or purchase birdhouses and cards. SSNS also asks people to participate in the Road to Recovery Walk in May, and write letters to MLAs expressing concern that psychiatric services aren’t available through MSI.