Published on February 3rd, 2017 | from CAMH
By Dr. Sandy Simpson, Chief, Forensic Psychiatry, CAMH
It has been a hard first week in the dystopian world of Trump’s presidency, immigration bans and the mass shooting at a Mosque in Quebec. On my way to the prison for my afternoon clinic, I hear the accounts of the distress people are feeling in the wake of these events, and the attitudes towards each other that they betray. The radio plays a cover version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, delivered with near operatic intensity.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening.
I feel a deep unease and tearfulness about the world and the distress that people are suffering. A political junkie all my life, perhaps absorbing and thinking too much about all of this is getting to me too. Music has a way of getting to the emotions that lie under cognitive barriers.
I visit a remand prison every week, to try and reach people who have a serious mental illness who our care systems may have missed, and who need our help. We have established the system to make sure we reach all the people who might need us. While we see some people only once, we try to connect with everyone in some way. Today, I have three people to see in Segregation, and a fourth young man from the mental health unit.
In Segregation, the men cannot be let out of their cells to talk with me. One man manages to communicate succinctly that he wants me to go away. Which I respect.
The second is a young man, first time in prison, now facing very serious charges. We shake hands through the hatch – the opening in the middle of the cell door that food trays and hands can pass through. He sits on his side, I kneel on the other. We talk. He knows there is little I can do for him, he is not unwell he assures me. He feels the tragedy of his situation, tries to normalize it, but not shirk. He speaks without a cover story, he doesn’t pretend things are other than they are. He faces a tough reality, we both know it. He doesn’t seek platitudes or reassurance, but responds to my acknowledgement of his situation. No anger or negotiation with me, I am a person, as is he. We shake hands as I rise stiffly from my kneeling position on the concrete. I sensed we had met as people, even if briefly, and so constrained by the context.
The next man is a little older than my 57 years. He has spent his morning communicating anger at anyone that came in range, including slinging a wet T-shirt from the toilet at the officers. He had been abusive to some of my team when they came to see him. By the time I arrived, he had cleaned up his cell, greeted me respectfully and warmly, and so the officers risked opening the hatch for us to talk. We both found a way to get comfortable, a mattress on his side, a chair this time on mine. He talked of himself and his life. Residential schools, graduating high school, university briefly and semi-professional hockey, movies he had been an extra in, too much alcohol, the games played in the many detention centres he had spent time in. All this he did with a jovial account of a storyteller, desiring acceptance of the richness of his life, and his mistakes. But without self-pity or needing anything from me, simply wanting to share the stories, to be heard. He would accept any short-term support I might offer. But he was off to ‘native court’ as he put it in a week, he would be fine. He gave me a fist bump as I departed.
Finally, with an interpreter, I spoke with a young man with a serious mental illness, on serious charges. Today he is doing much better than he was when he arrived in custody. The voices that were tormenting are now all positive, the medication is working. He gets how lucky he is that his voices are not tormenting him, he has seen so many other people with voices being very troubled. He is in the Mental Health unit and has friends he relates to positively. Indeed he has a knack for finding everyone helpful, has joined the therapeutic groups we run there. Everyone, he says, are like family.
The thoughts that disturbed me three hours earlier have passed. I had made simple connection with these people, on different sides of steel doors. Fleeting, respectful, human connections helped me feel grounded in what matters.
Briefly, at least, people were talking and listening.