Tim Krahn pads down the stairs in slippers. The footwear contradicts the austere name of his workplace, Novel Tech Ethics, as does the untucked shirt, stylishly cut hair and a welcoming, friendly manner. (The only visible concession to formality is a few empty earring holes in one ear.)
Novel Tech Ethics is an international and interdisciplinary research group based at Dalhousie University and, through it, affiliated to the QEII Health Sciences Centre. The group, where Krahn is a researcher, explores the ethics of new technologies in the fields of neuroscience and genetics.
Rather than heels of sturdy, sensible shoes echoing in long, gleaming corridors of some cold, sterile building, Novel Tech is located in an old house on LeMarchant.
The word itself, ethics, rings didactic, clinical---prescribing an absolute right and wrong way to live. "We many times misconstrue that ethics is about rules for right action," Krahn says. "My job is to try to get people to think critically about how to find an answer that is for themselves but that is ethical at the same time."
For the third year, Krahn has put on a free film series with panel discussions on issues and ideas that illustrate the ethics of mental illness and health care provision.
"Many of our formative views are birthed in the theatre," Krahn says.
States of Mind 2009 wraps up Wednesday with Charlie Bartlett, starring Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Young and Anton Yelchin. The other films were Michael Clayton, The Savages and Music Within.
Mental health care providers, researchers, clinicians, advocates, teachers, university faculty and students, parents and those Krahn calls "mental health consumers" and their families have come to watch the films. He reports between 150 to 200 people---capacity for the theatre---attend.
"At least half our questions come from people who self-identify, or are otherwise known to have, mental health conditions," he says, though offers no verification.
In Michael Clayton, a 2007 George Clooney-led thriller, Tom Wilkinson plays a pivotal role: a senior partner at a major corporate law firm who decides to go off his medication and, as Krahn says, "gains what he thinks is the power of moral clarity," threatening said corporate clients' standing.
While the film focuses on Clooney as the firm's fixer, it offers to Krahn an opportunity to discuss bipolar disorder---once termed manic depression---as more than a condition of being mentally ill. "This might not be just a pathology but a way of being," he says.
If being mentally ill doesn't bring with it enough stigma, there's self-doubt related to being on medication. "There's a long lineage whereby people think they're compromising their autonomy when they take medication," Krahn says.
"These aren't necessarily films I'd watch in my spare time," he admits. "But I have watched them many times and I do find them meaningful for this purpose." He seeks films with appeal to the broadest viewers (he calls it a "neuro-diverse" world), among other criteria, such as having some connection to the work of local organizations.
With Charlie Bartlett, the series' final film, "a parody of psychiatry" runs through it. Such a portrayal of the profession (via Stephen Young's character) can affect the decision of a young person to seek counselling or not, Krahn says. (Bartlett is in high school, an age group he wants to reach.)
"One of the things I'm trying to do is to build a critical public that can take it and say, 'Yes, this can be something we can laugh about, but we know this is not how all psychiatrists are.'" He hopes to provide "a context where you can talk things through with professionals in a way that isn't charged." (Krahn had Wade Junek, clinical and consulting psychiatrist with the IWK Mental Health and Addictions Program, preview the film. He will also sit on the panel.)
The films are not part of Krahn's job at Novel Tech, nor is the series funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which funds the group. Krahn says he's "no aficionado" of film, but recommends work he wouldn't show: Lodge Kerrigan, who wrote and directed Keane and Clean, Shaven. "I think I'd have an empty theatre in 10 or 20 minutes if I showed any of them. It's like schizophrenia...from the inside out."
Charlie Bartlett, Wednesday, February 4 at QEII Royal Bank Theatre, 1796 Summer, 7pm, free.