Friday, December 12, 1997

Coroner's jury makes recommendations regarding treatment of mentally ill individuals two years after murder of journalist Brian Smith

(Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, 12 December 1997)

A coroner's jury looking into the August 1995 fatal shooting of popular television personality Brian Smith has come out with 72 recommendations aiming at a major overhaul in the laws and programs dealing with the mentally ill.

The inquest was called to examine possible changes to the Mental Health Act of the province of Ontario and other related legislation that could prevent potentially dangerous mentally ill people from living in the community, while refusing to undergo medical treatment.

Brian Smith, a popular sportscaster, was shot as he left his Ottawa-area TV station after the dinner-hour newscast in August 1995. Smith was gunned down by Jeffery Arenburg, a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence against members of the media associated with his psychotic delusions. Arenburg had spent a brief time in a psychiatric hospital four years before the shooting. He denied having a mental disorder, however, and refused treatment by psychiatrists, who had no recourse but to discharge him from the hospital.

In May 1997, Arenburg was found not criminally responsible for first-degree murder by a criminal court. He is now at a maximum-security psychiatric hospital indefinitely.

The goal of the coroner's jury recommendations is to give psychiatrists, nurses and social workers more power to decide who needs to be assessed for treatment against their will. The changes would also ensure that the rights of mentally ill people do not prevent doctors from effectively treating patients who do not realize they have a mental disorder.

Among the jury's 72 recommendations of 25 November were:

* The forced hospitalization and treatment of the seriously mentally ill.
* Increased spending on community-based treatment programs.
* A comprehensive review of the mental health Act by the Ontario Health Ministry.

The jury also said society must avoid making hospitals "places of detention, not places of healing, by preventing physicians from treating the mentally ill when medical science has the capacity to alleviate their suffering and arrest their descent into a psychotic hell." (The Ottawa Citizen Online.)

Alana Kainz, Smith's widow, was a driving force in the search for the reasons behind her husband's murder. She revealed the extent of her participation in the inquest on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's daily radio program This Morning. Declining the services of a lawyer, she personally questioned witnesses on the stand at the inquest, but said she never considered taking civil action. She stated her belief that the recommendations should be adopted by the government because they could prevent future violent incidents involving the mentally ill: "I feel as if a promise I made to Brian while he lay dying has been fulfilled....I think it's important for the government to take hold of these recommendations now and implement them."

In an interview, the regional coroner, Dr. Bechard, said he plans to forward the jury recommendations to at least four other government agencies for implementation: the federal department of health, the federal Solicitor General, the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP. He will then request officials from each agency to report to Ontario's chief coroner in a year's time on which recommendations have been adopted.

Not everyone is so keen for the government to enact these recommendations. Steve Thomas, a diagnosed schizophrenic, said: "It's like killing a fly with a sledgehammer...It's criminalising every person who was ever ill, to try and track them down on the street and treat them like dogs." (Toronto Star, 26 November 1997.)

The Ontario Provincial Government has said it is eager to consider the recommendations. This could not occur too soon for Alana Kainz, who confessed that she does not want to live and breathe the issue (forever), but will check on the progress of the coroner's jury recommendations in terms of new legislation. She maintains that her husband would be alive today if the jury's recommendations were in place three years ago. (This Morning, CBC Radio, 26 November 1997.)

References and Sources

* This Morning, CBC Radio, 26 November 1997.
* The Toronto Star, 26 November 1997.