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'The mad and the bad'

The mentally ill are often saddled with a double stigma, cycling through the justice system without getting treated for underlying disorders. As Dawn Walton reports, the prisons are full of people with mental problems, many of them so-called frequent fliers

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

EDMONTON — With her French-manicured nails, a dainty cross dangling around her neck and trendy eyeglass frames perched on her nose, Corry Grunsky looks every bit the woman she once was — a married mother of four with a career as a restaurant manager.

Then she points to her mug shot.

Her eyes are dour, her lips pursed, her skin is sallow and her short, brown hair is a mess. Her normally sturdy 5-foot-8 frame has been whittled down to a 123-pound stick figure.

The photo was taken on Dec. 27, 2001, when Ms. Grunsky's dual life as a methamphetamine junkie and successful dealer, trafficking the scourge of the Prairies to a network of two-bit dealers in small towns around Edmonton, would abruptly end. Drugs had become her crutch — and her livelihood — after she was diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Police, who had been dogging her for years, used a battering ram to barge into her home. Prosecutors made drug charges stick. And Ms. Grunsky, with her addiction and multiple psychological demons, joined the growing legion of mentally ill Canadians for whom prison has become the new asylum.

"They should offer treatment programs because we're incarcerated anyway, so why don't we get a program that will help us cope?" said Ms. Grunsky, now 54 and, despite everything, sober and working through a college program in psychology and social work. "… My time in the federal penitentiary was a joke; it was a complete joke."

It is public-policy insanity, a justice system that cycles people through cops, courts and prisons without treating their underlying illnesses.

Canada's provincial jails and federal prisons are home to a burgeoning number of offenders with mental disorders, many of them repeat offenders — so-called frequent fliers. Many have diagnoses ranging from depression and schizophrenia to anti-social personality disorder and psychosis, and may also be addicted to alcohol or drugs.

"What we're seeing is a criminalization of the mentally ill," said Val Villeneuve, director of forensic psychiatry services in southern Alberta, who has been working with offenders for 30 years. "It's not a sexy topic. People don't want to hear about these crazies and criminals. It's a double stigma to be a criminal and mentally ill — the mad and the bad."

The number of people in federal prisons with mental illnesses has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to the 2006/07 report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, long-time federal Ombudsman Howard Sapers. Over that same period, the incarceration rate has barely budged.

Twelve per cent of federally imprisoned men had a mental disorder in 2007, up from 7 per cent in 1997. Meanwhile, 21 per cent of incarcerated women were mentally ill, up from 13 per cent over the same period. And while stats are scant for provincial jails, experts say the mental-illness rates there are likely much higher.

Why the spike in mentally disturbed people behind bars?

Experts point to the well-intentioned deinstitutionalization trend in the 1970s aimed at getting the mentally ill back in the community, as well as deficit-reduction strategies of the 1990s, which saw cuts to social programs.

"The prison system is the only system in the entire state apparatus that can't say, 'Sorry, we're full,'" said Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society, an advocacy group for male prisoners. "As a consequence, prisons become dumping grounds because other areas of the social-welfare network have either broken down or been downsized or downloaded to the provincial authorities that can't deal with it."


Ms. Grunsky was born an Air Force brat in Arvida, Que., and by the age of 8, her family had moved to Bon Accord, just north of Edmonton.

Despite a difficult adolescence, including heavy drug use, she went on to a sober, busy life as a wife and mother of four, working in the restaurant industry. But feeling down, she consulted psychiatrists who diagnosed her with depression and bipolar disorder and prescribed several drugs. By her early 40s, the anti-depressant Prozac made her feel "normal" and she figured she was cured — so she "took the whole bottle."

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Return to Breakdown: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis

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In Breakdown, The Globe and Mail documents the enormous, unaddressed cost of mental illness to Canadian individuals, families and society. The series closes with a search for solutions.


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